Arinzé Kene’s 2011 play is as stickily delightful as stretching a piece of chewing gum between finger and thumb. It chronicles three moments when three London kids had to grow up – each moment as tiny and gargantuan as everything feels when you’re sixteen. Rugrat (Khai Shaw) is the class clown, bouncing around the stage, hooting with excitement at the prospect of an after-school fight. Kehinde (Anyebe Godwin) is gentle and winsome, but with a quiet longing to climb the social ladder. Joanne (Rachel Nwokoro) is gutsy with a bruised core, stalking around the stage, reluctant to let down her guard for fear of what people might find.
And my God it’s fun. It fizzes and froths like a half-drunk bottle of Coke, shaken up and sprayed with reckless abandon at the back of the school bus. The cast are kinetic, bouncing off each other like water molecules, each exerting utter confidence. They make it look so easy. They’re genuinely responsive, absolutely in the moment – particularly Nwokoro, whose lightning-quick reactions to the audience are likely to cause whiplash. “What’s funny?” she demands of an audience member who has the gall to giggle at her story, fixing them with an uncanny, precociously level stare. “Have you got any sweets for me and my friends?” Shaw asks, pressing his palms together into a prayer as the audience file in. “No,” we reply. He rolls his eyes and walks off to try his luck on the other side of the stage. Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s done stellar work here – they’re a (admittedly rambunctious) single unit, but also entirely electric individuals. They work in sinewy synchronicity and yet maintain a carefree, seemingly unrehearsed insouciance.
Tara Usher’s raised tarmac podium reminds me of one of the fighting stages you get in Super Smash Bros (and Street Fighter does, in fact, make a cameo) and the trio move accordingly, launching themselves up and down the stage, rolling on the floor, teetering on the brink of the playground and hurling themselves back into the centre like they’ve run into a magnetic forcefield. If they try to leave the podium, Bethany Gupwell’s halo light flashes red – not ready for adulthood just yet, get back kiddos (though this rule does get broken at one point, in a manner which feels a little strange when the conceit feels so strong.) And Nicola Chang’s choice sound effects are a delight – little pings, zings, and boings, all bouncing off various actions like comic book onomatopoeia. It’s all gorgeously playful, refreshingly ready to entertain.
What’s surprising, then – deep breath – is that Kene’s text is possibly its most uneven element. It’s unwieldy and straggling – charmingly so, yes, feeling like a kid who’s telling their parents a story and keeps getting distracted by other shiny narrative nuggets – but it could lose a good ten to twenty minutes. And yet, and yet, I also wanted it to take the time it needed. For it to take as long as it wanted to take. I was always happy to be in the trio’s company. The sprawling, skittering nature of the piece, though it can frustrate a little towards the 2-hour mark, feels appropriately expansive.
The play’s internal rhythms are impeccable – precise and satisfying, no surprise to anyone who saw and heard Misty. A gentle spiritual element emerges in the slower, stranger, more ponderous second half, bright and shining like a silver thread, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s as disorientating as it is beautiful. And as things complexify in the second half – when the trio encounter the consequences of sex, death, and mental illness – Gupwell’s circular light begins to tilt on its axis, affecting the gravitational pull. Things start to become a little more skewed, a little less certain. Lights bounce bright on one side of the face and not the other. Two of the three are drawn together like the moon pulling the tide – the third remains adjacent. It’s messy. Threads don’t weave together as I feel they should. Deliberately so. Teenage-land is tricky.
My head grumbled a little afterwards – Fynn-Aidenu and Kene gun the engine, and not all of it sticks. And yet, a day later, my heart still feels full to the brim, and I can still feel that lightness in my body. Do you know how often that happens? It’s not nearly enough.
Little Baby Jesus is on at the Orange Tree Theatre till 16th November. More info here.