[author-post-rating] (4/5 stars)
This fast-paced adaptation of Stephen Kelman’s acclaimed novel is the perfect showcase for its young cast’s diverse range of talents. Harri, played by Daniel C. Johnson, guides the audience through life on the Peckham council estate to which he, his mother and older sister have all moved, while his father and little sister remain behind in Ghana. They have come for a better life, for Harri and his sister to get the kind of chances they could only have dreamt of back at home – but what they’ve found instead is a world of gangs, danger and constant, simmering violence.
In this collaboration between Bristol Old Vic and the National Youth Theatre, the ensemble cast are energetic and incredibly tightly rehearsed. Johnson carries the piece with a confidence and skill that belies his years; in his hands, Harri is young and innocent without being naïve or unrealistic. He just feels very painfully real. Harri is both fascinated by and suitably wary of the gang life that already surrounds him, even though he is only in year seven.
Miranda Cromwell’s direction and Gbolahan Obisesan’s adaptation of the novel have created a production that feels steeped in the language, music and culture of a diverse and complicated south London. There is beat-boxing, free running and, mercifully, no heavy-handed musings about the dire fate of young people today or the effect of benefits culture. Pigeon English simply shows life as some people experience it, and perhaps that is partly why it doesn’t fall into the uncomfortable traps that much theatre about working class life is plagued by. This doesn’t feel like middle-class people making the kind of theatre other middle-class people can peer at, as if through the bars of a zoo – instead, Pigeon English is theatre made by young people, about young people, for everybody.
Cromwell’s production is very inventive, with projections at the top suggesting certain un-stageable pieces of action or sometimes simply reflecting Harri’s mood, and actors occasionally moving between scenes with quick, jerky gestures evocative of sped-up film. Having so much thrown at the staging can make Pigeon English feel a bit over-stuffed at times, as can the inevitable teething problems of any novel-to-stage adaptation, that leave some elements of the plot hanging or simply have them fade away.
Still, this is a high-energy 90 minutes of intense, arresting theatre, from a group of young actors with some very bright futures ahead of them.
Pigeon English is at Underbelly every day until 25 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.