The Spalding Suite

Inua Ellams (with others)
Fuel Theatre
Contact Theatre

George Bray, Jason York, Emmanuel Akwafo, KM Drew Boateng and Marcquelle Ward. Credit: Helen Maybanks
MC Zani confronts the cast Credit: Helen Maybanks

For the uninitiated, Spalding makes basketballs, its name clearly emblazoned on almost any ball you might encounter.

In these islands, basketball is very much a minority sport but, as director Benji Reid points out, an excellent topic for the kind of street dance/movement theatre he specialises in, for "basketball without the ball is dance".

Inua Ellams’s story of five basketball-obsessed friends, has a dramatic arc built around poems by himself and five other poets. Given that the poems came before the plot, Ellams left himself quite a task yet, for the most part, he pulls it off. Some of the poems are okay, others are quite brilliant. Taken alongside Reid’s excellent choreography and a perfectly matched live soundtrack by MC Zani (with music by Eric Lau), the result is a production full of treats for the eye, the ear and the mind.

At base, we have a simple story of male-bonding through a shared loved of sport; the physically impressive KM Drew Boateng commands attention in his monologues, while each of the others has a distinct (if slightly predictable) role in the group: Marcquelle Ward is the dandy for whom the gear is as important as the game; George Bray, the solid, reliable anchor; Emmanuel Akwafo, the fat boy who dreams of being better than he is; Jason York, the abused son whose anger pushes him to be better than the rest.

Trying to tell an ensemble story, filled with movement and music and excellent aural effects, in the space of an hour was bound to demand sacrifices in characterisation. Bray’s character seems underdeveloped, and it would be easy to take issue with the clichéd presentation of the fat-boy-who-everyone-laughs-at-but-who-has-his-moment-of-glory were it not for the charm, commitment and believability of Emmaneuel Akwafo’s performance in the role.

The struggle of Akwafo’s character begins at home. “Mother means well” but can’t understand his love of basketball which, when all’s said and done is “a game for girls”. His fantasies about his abilities—“I’m so fast I make race cars gasp”—soon come up against reality, when the genuine skill of Jason York’s troubled character, teases and torments him, before permitting entry to the team. (No imaginary ball for York, by the way, just bold and impressive technique with a genuine Spalding basketball).

The challenge for any competitive sportsperson is the constant threat of that moment in which hope and dream get smashed against the wall of reality—being made to look into the ugly and unforgiving mug of our own limitations. For the five friends, this moment comes when they are humiliated by a kid whose talent so far outstrips their own, there is little for them to do but admire as, one by one, they fall in his wake. “We praised him with a chorus of ragged breath.” This episode involves beatboxer, MC Zani taking to the stage and gets a deserved round from the audience.

In sport, as in life, “every journey ends with a fall”. The measure of the man (and the true test of friendship) is how we respond to such brutal realities. At first, this gang fall into bickering, blame and insults—sparked by the bitter, angry reaction of their most talented player; the combination of an abusive home life and this loss of face on the basketball court threatens to sink him into despair and violence: “I am becoming my monster.”

Salvation lies through friendship and team work (including the generosity to give the big lad his moment of triumph). Sentimental perhaps, but not untruthful.

At the heart of The Spalding Suite is Benji Reid’s choreography, making imaginative use of slowed motion, the underlying geometric elements of basketball forms and props including a climbing wall and harness. The five actors, who played their part in the development of the choreography, also deserve credit for their contribution to a production that has not only athleticism but much that is graceful (in a suitably manly way, of course).

This is a high quality production, with the impact of Reid’s work being augmented by Ti Green’s design and (at the Contact) excellent work from the sound and lighting team.

It is an ideal introduction to a theatrical environment for schools, colleges or anyone else who feels more at home in a sports arena than in a darkened theatre space. Lovers of sport will get it; lovers of street dance and physical theatre will get it; lovers of words will also get it.

A complex collaborative, multi-art form show. Slam dunk.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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