Through the door in the back wall of Ellen Cairns’ set, visible in brief, snatched glances as performers slam it open and closed, the world is all askew. The outer walls of a Deptford housing estate unsettlingly loom, threatening and out of kilter, yet at the same time oddly flat. It’s a fitting metaphor for the crooked, broken realm of Arinze Kene’s play, where identities are doubled and conflicted and the world of the protagonists teeters dangerously on a precipice. But despite rapidly rising stakes and an imposed sense of urgency, the play too exists on something of a level plane, never quite achieving the texture that its early scenes tantalisingly promise.
Kene’s premise revolves around the reunion of two mixed-race brothers in 1980s Deptford, at the height of local tensions. Chima returns home from ten years in prison to a cold, aggressive greeting from Onochie, the younger sibling who neither knows nor welcomes him and who stubbornly seeks to reject his own Nigerian heritage. The initial conflict over racial identity that wedges itself between the estranged brothers is quickly joined by the divisive ghosts of Chima’s past, a past whose consequences gradually smash their way into the kitchen where the siblings haltingly renegotiate their relationship.
As the brittle, wary Onochie, Ash Hunter is all youthful bravado and prickly contradiction, a moody wannabe skinhead not yet grown into his bovver boots. Explosions of wounded anger are offset by moments of startling tenderness, particularly when bouncing off girlfriend Holly, the local white girl whose entanglement in the crime for which Chima was accused acts as a catalyst for escalating revelations. Unwittingly caught in the eye of this storm, Ria Zimtrowicz’s Holly is a lightning bolt of teenage attitude and optimism, precisely and hilariously capturing the naivety, awkwardness and bolshily faked confidence of adolescence.
Michael Buffong’s production is at its best when continuing in this observational vein, hitting delicately and often poetically on truths about both human relationships and the knotty process of defining one’s own identity. Through the contrasting experiences of Onochie and Kingsley Ben-Adir’s older, battle-scarred Chima, the question of whether it’s ever possible to choose one’s racial identity is probingly posed. The piece’s structure and characters begin to unravel, however, as the reality of the situation and of Chima’s past is delivered in a series of unnecessarily heavy punches – a blurted name, the discovery of a letter, a furious outpouring of truth.
Throughout this heightened drama, the family kitchen is a room under siege from all angles, on the point of collapsing from the weight of external pressure. It’s a pressure that is reflected in Cairns’ design, a detailed domestic space that crumbles away unevenly at the edges, giving way to a city ruptured by violence. This is the London of mass unemployment and the Brixton riots, an almost apocalyptic urban environment that the production repeatedly reminds us of. The contemporary parallels and resonances are never pointed at, but are ever hauntingly present.
The grim familiarities of this environment also mouth the unspoken question of whether anything has really changed. Onochie may be, as he proudly declares, “made in England”, but Kene’s recurring references to blood – both its inheritance and its spilling – suggest that it’s what runs in the veins that continues to matter in our society. Just as its conclusion remains suspended, the question of change is one that this production decides not to answer, but still it seems to hang in the air, as unresolved and off-centre as the world outside. While the piece as a whole may lose its way, the view framed by Cairns through the doorway says it all.