Review: Natives, Southwark Playhouse

Natives is a new written piece by Glenn Waldron that follows three teenagers on one day of their lives – their fourteenth birthday. Coldly but aptly named A, B, and C, these characters collectively come together in their questioning of reality and responsibility.

Ella Purnell, famous for her roles in Maleficent and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is A, a socialite. She appears lonely as she sits, in Miu Miu, surrounded by peers who all converse with one another via their mobile phones. It is her birthday, yet the closest she has come to celebrating it is when the maids all sang happy birthday earlier that morning. Using direct address, she talks us through what is happening around her, and we witness her confusion as she begins to question her own normality.

Here we observe a young woman struggling to understand the world around her, and with the absence of parents, she has little guidance into the unfamiliar reality of adulthood. Manish Gandhi, a recent LAMDA graduate, and one of the British Council’s 2016 Global list of top influences for freedom and equality promotion, is our C. Now set in the Middle East, C is a happy and excitable young man. One who initially arrives downstairs in t-shirt and pants to open his present because today, you guessed it, is his fourteenth birthday. It is a book, much to his disappointment (he had been eagerly anticipating Hiro’s Kingdom 5 instead).

C submerges himself into gaming which, again, seems to be an easy yet dangerous distraction from the reality of what is happening around him. Fionn Whitehead, whose credits include Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk and Richard Eyre’s The Children Act, plays B. A young, seemingly working class boy, sits at the funeral of his older brother while watching violent videos on his phone. B is desensitised to most things; vicious shootings and vulgar fetish videos all seem to be quite normal, even funny to this young man.

A, B, and C seem to have lived most of their lives engulfed in technology. So much so that the gap between fantasy and reality has become completely blurred. It isn’t until each seemingly light-hearted tale takes a dark and sinister turn that they are woken up to the extremity of a reality they now know little about. Once awoken they all struggle to understand one crucial thing: where are the adults who are meant to care and guild them through this?

Ella Purnell (L), Manish Gandhi (C), and Fionn Whitehead (R) seen isolated. Photo by The Other Richard

Direction by Rob Drummer is refined and uncluttered, and works perfectly to maximise the actors’ storytelling capabilities. Our young cast are sublime and have an exemplary level of polish and finesse. I was truly blown away by the energy and engagement of all three.

Purnell is hilarious, tragic, intelligent, naïve, and outrageous; all mixed into one complex and detailed performance. She is an exceptionally talented actress who is charming and a pleasure to watch. Gandhi may just be the finest young actor I have ever seen. His vitality and detailed storytelling is outstanding. Whitehead is a great contrast of energy to the other two actors. He grounds the piece and brings a wickedly sinister element to this character. The writing by Waldron is incredible. It is a mix of the political, emotional, and philosophical, packed with pace and utterly uncompromising.

I do have one small bugbear I feel cannot go unmentioned: Character B, decorated in Adidas tracksuit, speaking of the estate, among other details that clearly make him working class. Moreover, the play’s description is that of ‘Three Worlds’. Yet we have a white, seemingly (I can only make the conclusion by what I see) middle class boy playing the part of a character that is screaming out to be an overtly working class or BAME actor.

It would really assist the narrative to further contrast the characters and not have two out of three actors white (at best borderline estuary but certainly not working class).

Natives is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 22 April.