In an unspecified area of London, Hari, 11, along with his sister Lydia and Mamma, are fresh off the plane from Ghana, leaving behind his father, baby sister Agnes and his grandmother. He reacts with wide-eyed wonder at this new culture, yet he and everyone else is aware of the danger and tension in the area, following the recent stabbing of a teenage boy. He is naïve, brave, sweet and not nearly as worldy-wise as his big sister, but enjoys chasing pigeons, playing detective with his best friend Dean and running really fast.
Pigeon English, an adaptation of Stephen Kelman’s highly acclaimed novel by Gbolahan Obisesan, is a high-octane, funny, tender piece of theatre. The athleticism and energy of the young performers is infectious and we are very easily transported to the tough streets of inner city London’s poorer areas. In both the writing and acting there are moments of brilliance, and Cecilia Carey’s set is a beautiful example of a designer’s vision come to practical, physical fruition.
Seraphina Beth’s portrayal of Hari is outstanding, and really carries the whole piece. Her use of body language, facial expression and movement are fantastic, but it is her comic timing that sustains the audience’s attention throughout. There is a lot of direct address in the script and her delivery is spot on. A particular mention should also go to Daisy Fairclough as Lydia, who grows into her performance and has some really dynamic interaction with Hari. The other stand out performance is Kwami Odoom, playing X-Fire, a tough gang member at Hari’s school who takes a strong interest in Lydia. His crew, the DFC, are involved in something dark, and he is the only member convincing in his aggression and vulnerability, showing a real edge.
All the actors, however, are helped by Obisesan’s crackling script. His manipulation of modern slang is excellent, and the teenage voice he captures is genuine – no mean feat. The energy is unquestionable, the setting is convincing and the relationships are believable. However, it is a production that hasn’t quite joined up the dots. There are key flaws, and strong individual facets have not necessarily succeeded in creating a complete production.
There is the case of Never Normal Girl played by Charlotte Law. Her role consists of announcing the location of each scene and occasionally interspersing the action with poetical commentary. The poetry is where the script falls flat, commenting on the experience of a disadvantaged teenager in our society but with no clear sense of how it connects to the rest of the action onstage. This detracts from the rest of the production, as it is obvious there is a message being put across, but it remains unclear what it is, or how it links to the rest of the play. Elsewhere, a couple of accents falter from time to time, and there is a certain lack of connection between Hari and his mother, played by Chinenye Esiedu. The tough Ghanaian parenting approach was beautifully executed but there wasn’t much evidence of love within the family unit.
Ultimately, these things muddy the waters somewhat, and deaden the emotional impact of the overall production. Individual aspects of the production were outstanding, but it didn’t quite hit the heights as a whole.
Pigeon English is playing at Ambassadors Theatre until November 22 (performances not every day).
Photo: Helen Murray