Apparently if you cut off the oxygen supply to your brain, you experience a brief moment, right before you pass out, of total euphoria. It’s a dangerous game to play, but for some, the feeling is worth it.
Suffocation, a new play by Arinze Kene, examines the murky relationship between sex, violence and self harm within the eternal, adolescent quest for a free high. Set at a twentieth birthday party, the narrative dips between humour and horror as Emeka and his mates try to make sense of the events surrounding the recent asphyxiation of one of their group.
Emeka, keen to keep the peace and prevent his friends from trashing his mum’s living room, attempts to lighten the mood with Jack Daniels and Chukka Khan, but the image of the hospitalised Imogene soon begins to fixate and consume the small party.
Kene, an actor/playwright best known for his role as the muscle-bound Connor Stanley in EastEnders, has here produced a script which demonstrates why he has been tipped by the Offies Awards as one of the most promising young writers of 2011. His interest in what he calls the “portrayal of the urban experience”, combined with a focused commitment to modern character construction, make the social dynamics of this play plausible yet entertainingly unpredictable.
His characters project a likeable, well-rounded image of youth culture, and are nicely played by the troupe of actors whose pleasingly unstudied style lend stellar lines such as “Hey fam, I’m gonna do a shit in your mum’s toilet…” an authenticity which is extremely amusing. This initial level of realism proves central to the development of the plot, as the audience is gradually shown how an adolescent sexual fantasy can lead to sadism and murder.
The notion of the ‘asphyxiation high’ is handled by director Toby Clarke through a series of surreal montages, which reflect the character’s obsessions and insecurities. These sequences are accompanied by the unnerving sound of a rushing train, and for the most part manage to avoid veering into the mawkish.
Unfortunately, within its closing moments, Suffocation descends needlessly into melodrama, climaxing in a scene that bears more resemblance to the soap opera tactics of Skins, than the subtextual realism with which the play began. This is a shame, and left me wondering whether, were it not confined to a single act, Suffocation might have gone on to address the complex issues surrounding the modern fetishisation of violence more rationally.
This said, Suffocation remains a good example of fresh, youth-centred writing, and fully deserved its place as the headline piece for 33% London, the Oval House Theatre’s annual festival celebrating diversity and talent within the capital’s burgeoning young arts scene.
Well acted and flecked with brief moments of brilliance, ‘Suffocation’ needs work, but has the potential to go on and create a real buzz on the theatre circuit amongst young and older audiences alike.
33% London is taking place at the Oval House Theatre until 22nd January. For more information see their website here.