In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings

Stephen Adly Guirgis
Hampstead Theatre
(2003)

Stephen Adly Guirgis was lucky enough to have his first play to be produced in Britain, Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, nominated for best new play in the Olivier Awards last year. As a result, Hampstead Theatre has chosen to import this earlier play as one of the first productions in its new multi-million pound building. Whether it is quite right for the traditionally conservative Hampstead audiences could be arguable.

It is remarkable to reflect that In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings is a first play. Its rich, complex depiction of life in New York's Hell's Kitchen shows a great maturity with realistic dialogue and believable characters.

In Robert Delamere's production, a cast of English actors, some with rather imperfect New York accents, plays the 17 different characters who drift around Jake's rather seedy bar in one of the worst areas of the city. This is hardly Cheers. It is almost like a Third World nation with life expectancy and money short, weapons highly visible and drug-taking and prostitution nothing out of the ordinary. When Daniel Cerqueira's Lenny, fresh out of jail, and Miss Reyes (Deborah Weston) talk about the people that he had known six years before, almost all are either dead or in jail. Things don't improve: too many of Jake's customers fail to survive to the end of the play.

The incredible frustration bursts through at every opportunity. Whether it is the seventeen-year-old single mother, Demaris (Celia Meiras), pulling a gun on anyone who does not bow to her will, including her prostitute mother, or Ashley Davies as the other teenager, Chickie, selling her body for the next fix, life is hard.

When, as a result of Mayor Giuliani's gentrification (or is that Disneyfication?) of the city, a camp real-estate dealer - a hilarious performance by Colin McFarlane - arrives to buy up the place, it does feel like a different version of the rape that he inflicts upon the young drug dealer Skank (Tom Hardy in fine form), in the toilets.

There are so many wonderful and fully believable figures that it is possible to feel that you have spent the 100 minutes of the play as a voyeur, in and around the worst parts of New York. For everyone, making a quick buck and covering up their deep unhappiness, whether with sex or drugs; or more poignantly with often modest dreams of escape, is all that life has to offer. Somehow though, despite the rough stuff, Guirgis gives us the feeling that these people are comfortable living their own lives and that things will only get worse if the city is "cleaned-up".

There is only one person who is really happy. Garfield Morgan gives a great performance as the almost comatose Sammy, a man in fear of his wife but nothing else. He has seen everything in his life and is now a fixture in the bar, permanently drunk but in this way, able to let the world's worst vicissitudes pass by without affecting him.

This should be a very funny play but unfortunately, somewhere in mid-Atlantic, some of the jokes were stifled and far too many pass the audience by unnoticed. This is a pity, although the incredible power of the play and its depiction of the New York school of hard knocks and redemptive ending are still well worth the visit to North London.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher