Urban Afro Saxons
Talawa Theatre Companyi
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Talawa's latest production is subtitled 'What Makes You British?' and is a timely contribution to the controversial debate spawned not only by Blunkett's proposed citizenship tests but the burning questions raised by racism in the police force. A multiracial cast in cahoots with writers Kofi Agyemang and Particia Elcock give us a witty and heart-warming ensemble piece that should have the cheeks of the BNP, Blunkett and the boys in blue flushing with shame.
This is a vastly entertaining piece of theatre, engaging us with a group of characters evacuated from their council flats while the police deal with an armed lunatic who has taken a hostage. As they huff and puff around the playground, argue, make peace and finally friends, those issues incumbent on facile notions of nationhood are broached unobtrusively, passed back and forth with rough eloquence and dismissed as irrelevant in the business of living life and caring for spouses and offspring, parents and friends, and society at large.
The six-strong cast is just that: strong. Ben Bennett's calm, somewhat diffident Jermaine has to confess to his rather overbearing mother Patsy that he intends to leave home to go to university in Manchester, not because he doesn't love her, but because he has to move on, to be a man in his own right. Steve Toussaint's Dennis, the almost-qualified social worker, is a genuinely caring man (and an antithesis to the stereotype of the irresponsible black male) who supplies the voice of reason as the raunchy Patsy (played with vigorous panache by Suzette Llewellyn) oscillates between sexy provocation and irritable impatience, and Scott and Amanda seem bent on destroying their hitherto ideal inter-racial marriage.
As the night progresses and fatigue sets in, the arguments subside into banter and then comraderie. A lacklustre conversation turns pertinent when nationality becomes the issue. Dennis feels British, the cockney Scott doesn't. He's a Londoner and he needs a translator if he steps outside of London, except when he visits St Lucia with his wife. British-born Jamaican, Patsy, is gently mocked for her own brand of racism (to the audience's vociferous delight). And traditional English tunes such as God Save the Queen and Jerusalem are given a satisfyingly ironic and disrespectful treatment with multicultural rhythms and instruments. My favourite was that sentimental golden oldie of Vera Lynn's: We'll Meet Again in a reggae version.
There's something pleasingly tongue-in-cheek about Urban Anglo Saxons that complements a gentle but profound treatment of serious and pressing concerns in our multicultural society. It proves equally that political theatre dealing with social themes enlivened with fun and entertainment is still alive and kicking in Britain. And showing the way forward towards compassion and mutual understanding. When Patsy and Amanda resolved their differences (drawn from divergent backgrounds, education and experience), and apologise to each other, the scene prompted spontaneous applause.
I always love the audiences at the Theatre Royal Stratford. There's diversity in age and culture, and they are tend to be less inhibited than your average 50+ theatregoers. They seem to believe that they should have a role too, and in this they are quite right. There is no closure of meaning in theatre without the audience. And they are not scared to air their opinions, in a civilised theatrical fashion. They respond with loud appreciative laughter, and a repertoire of appropriately meaningful "oooos" and "aaaahs" and "wooooos" by way of supportive commentary. It makes one genuinely feel a part of something larger than oneself. Not just a passive voyeur tasting life vicariously in the dark, but a collaborator. It's always an experience that heightens my pleasure.
So get down to the Theatre Royal, and take all your friends with you, where Urban Afro Saxons puts a few of those serious issues into a friendlier more humane perspective.
"Urban Afro Saxons" runs until 15th November
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher