Originally slated for the spring of 2020 and cancelled due to the pandemic, the double bill of Braids and Cheer Up Slug has finally made it to the stage. Loosely linked by the theme of growing up in the North East, both pieces are sharply written and well-performed, tackling sometimes difficult issues with nuance and sensitivity.
Braids is perhaps the stronger of the two, in part because, in centring the Black Northern (and implied working class) experience, it feels like a story that is rarely told. If Northern stories reach the stage at all, they are still too often exclusively white; it feels depressingly unusual to hear a North East accent from a Black actor on stage.
That said, Braids doesn’t ignore the demographics of the region (particularly its more rural areas) and how that affects its non-white inhabitants – what it is like to be the ‘the ambassador for Blackness’, the only Black face in any room. Teenage Jasmine (an engaging Rochelle Goldie) has grown up surrounded by whiteness, even in her own family – where her Black identity is painfully tied up with her absent father. When she meets the outgoing Abeni, a new arrival from Manchester who seems confident in both her Blackness and her place in the world, she latches onto her as a role model – but their friendship isn’t always straightforward.
Goldie is delightful in her first lead stage role, giving us a likeable and relatable protagonist, with Xsara-Sheneille Pryce a perfect foil. Pryce’s emotionally nuanced performance strips back Abeni’s superficial confidence to show a young woman struggling with loss, isolation and displacement as she adjusts to her life in a place she hasn’t chosen to be. Pryce captures beautifully the brittle loneliness and insecurity behind her bravado.
Olivia Hannah’s smart text is tautly but empathetically directed by Kemi-Bo Jacobs (in her directorial debut), aided by Anna Orton’s stripped back but stylish design. It tackles not just racial identity but also family, grief, and the complications of teenage friendship, when you are having to negotiate not just one another, but yourselves, too. There are plenty of comic moments, but there’s genuine emotional heft. It’s particularly adept at illustrating the defensiveness and frustration on both sides in any conversation about race – Abeni’s exasperation at trying to explain to Jasmine that, as a dark-skinned Black woman, she is treated differently by the world than her lighter-skinned, biracial friend, while Jasmine feels such conversations are an attack. It’s moments like this that make Braids feel like not just an illuminating but also an important piece of theatre.
Tamsin Daisy Rees’ Cheer Up Slug is another coming of age story, set in the perilous period of not-yet-an-adult, not-still-a-child, when young people are caught between who they were growing up and who they will be.
Long-term friends Bean (Jackie Edwards) and Will (David Fallon) are camping out for a Duke of Edinburgh award, awaiting the arrival of Will’s friend and Bean’s boyfriend, Dean. As the night unfolds – and the reason for Dean’s absence becomes clear – old loyalties fray.
Edwards and Fallon deal well with the (often very physical) comedy of the piece and the more fragile moments (it’s worth noting, given this physicality, the show credits Ruth Cooper-Brown and Rachel Cristi Brown-Williams with intimacy / fight direction – something more productions could be doing). Orton’s design creates a resonant backdrop – there’s something both lonely and childishly idealistic about a small tent strewn with fairy lights – and Anna Ryder directs with sensitivity.
In a piece that is often very funny, but not afraid to probe darker subjects, Rees deploys the right degree of care in tackling the thorny subject of teenage sex and sexuality, with all its awkwardness and uncertainty. She’s particularly astute at portraying how difficult it is as a young, inexperienced teen to know what boundaries you should be setting and how to set them – what it is to still feel like a girl, but to be expected to behave like a woman. Fallon’s performance – mutating from nervy, nerdy and likable (if uptight) into something more disturbing – is subtly unsettling, underlining one of the production’s strongest points: its keen-eyed examination of male entitlement. It exposes how easy it is for boys and men to rewrite a situation to their advantage – the toxic ‘nice guy’ syndrome that places the burden of their desires or disappointments on women and girls – and how early on that can start.
Braids/Cheer Up Slug runs at Live Theatre until 23 October. More info here.