Little Baby Jesus
Oval House Theatre in association with BECreative and Spora Stories
Oval House Theatre
Rhythm counts for a lot in a play.
Talking about tension, development, progression, structure are often fancy ways of talking about a play's pulse and what's interesting with Little Baby Jesus is that it has almost perfect rhythm, but it doesn't necessarily have those other qualities closely linked to it.
Little Baby Jesus is part of the London to Lagos festival, celebrating the links between these two world cities.
It has three narrators, teenagers in school uniform, who tell their rough and ready stories of playground politics and puppy love. Little Baby Jesus is about growing up, about becoming who you want to be, and it's gritty enough to make this moralistic aspect feel real. So you have stories about school fights with an aura of the parable with biblical references and a didactic feel; a sense that works for formative moments.
That said, there's no real narrative whole to the play: characters develop by going through episodes that are broken into by another narrator's voice. You can piece together a loose beginning, middle and end for some of the characters, but in a way that's not really the point.
In the best practise of oral tradition, both that of the playground and of oral culture, the experience is in the story you're being told, not the stories' greater place.
And these stories do feel real; do feel like they have been lived. There's a raw authenticity to them in their detail and their tone ('some kids won't let you get an education without a foundation in street'). This immediacy is an important part of the night but the script nonetheless has the aftertaste of a first draft.
The main characters reach a natural end point but not a conclusion, some characters no conclusion at all and certain threads are mentioned then forgotten about. The last scene, with all three narrators spouting out aphorisms ('aspire but don't forget to be') works because it's riding on a well developed rhythm and fits within the play's didactic aspiration, but in itself is indulgent and, worse, patronising.
So the internal beat of each episode is perfect, the transitions are smooth but the whole feels a bit incomplete. There's also the danger, generally avoided, of the night being more performance than theatre. Akemnji Ndifornyen was particularly prone to making the scenes about him, partly because he was so incredibly charismatic. Fiston Barek and Seroca Davis proved more subtle actors: less expansive but more emotional range.
All this said, Little Baby Jesus is an intense, very funny and very much alive night with superb acting, solid writing and a real pulse. While not as polished as it could be and at times self-indulgent, it's very much worth the night out.
Reviewer: Tobias Chapple