Little Baby Jesus

Arinzé Kene
Orange Tree Theatre
Orange Tree Theatre

Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde, Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne and Khai Shaw as Rugrat Credit: Ali Wright
Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde and Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne Credit: Ali Wright
Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne and Khai Shaw as Rugrat Credit: Ali Wright
Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde and Khai Shaw as Rugrat Credit: Ali Wright
Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne and Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde Credit: Ali Wright
Khai Shaw as Rugrat, Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde and Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne Credit: Ali Wright

Actor and playwright Arinzé Kene had a big hit last year as both with his play Misty which transferred from the Bush to Trafalgar Studios garnering nominations for both acting and writing Oliviers, but this is one of his earlier plays, first seen at Oval House in 2011. It now gets a stunning revival directed by Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, 2019’s winner of the JMK Award for young directors.

In Little Baby Jesus, three inner-city London teenagers, Kehinde, Joanne and Rugrat, all in their last year of secondary school, look back on their time there and how they grew up—and they tell it their way.

It is written as three intercut monologues but Fynn-Aiduenu gives it a fizzing energy and an extra dimension with all three actors in near constant movement as they becoming part of each other’s telling, voicing the dialogue in reported incidents or reinforcing a point by joining in unison. It is robust and pacy and very vernacular.

They are there before the play stars: Kehinde, Joanne and Rugrat in school ties and blazers on the raised disc of asphalt that is the main feature of Tara Usher’s setting. An already loud dance track is being drowned out by the hubbub of voices but they are still managing to chat to audience members when they aren’t too absorbed in making the moves (or in the case of Kehinde conducting the music as the others gyrate around him).

They keep up this audience contact, directing some comments to individuals with a spontaneity that seems more improvised than scripted. These are North London youngsters. The local gang are the all-white Cali Road Boys, though if you're a true Arsenal supporter they’ll let blacks in.

The trio are very distinctive: Khai Shaw’s disruptive Rugrat, in his bright yellow Nike trainers, the class joker bursting with energy, jumping all over the place, Rachel Nwokoro’s confrontational Joanne, in black patent leather shoes with red laces to match her nails, who talks like an advancing express train and calmer Kehinde, played by Anyebe Godwin, who seems a natural clown with a sad face but turns out more mature and more thoughtful than the other two.

At their school, as Rugrat puts it, “ya gotz ta be streetwise. Certain playboys won’t let you get an education without you passing your foundation in street wisdom.”

We hear about teachers and pupils, like big guy Babatunde who shocked everyone when he arrived on his first day in sandals but was a tough guy, of fights taking place after school in the subway, bragging Baker who says he made it with Jodie from EGA Sixth Form (that’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson but to the boys it is Every Girl Available). Rugrat fancied Jodie, Kehinde had a thing about mixed race girls like Rachel and then there is what happened with Joanne. She tells us about the skinny guy who came into the launderette she worked in (and there’s a tale attached to that launderette) of the way magnets attract and repel, like her and Kehinde, of her mother’s mental illness.

Kehinde’s twin sister Taiwo is a footballer and a great runner, competing against Pierre (with his elder brother one of the Cali Road boys). The twins are Yoruba so we get a little of their culture.

This is a fascinating outpouring of stories of discoveries, of growing up with guilt and tragedy—and the little baby. It’s exhilarating in its energy and explosive physicality. Fynn-Aiduenu has delivered a revival that makes this a must-see, with a contribution from movement consultant D K Fashola and three remarkable young actors.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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