Bola Agbaje’s Gone Too Far! is the last production in the Royal Court’s summer season of Upstairs successes transplanted to the larger main house.
The play tells the story of two brothers. Yemi, the younger of the two, is the more street-wise and self conscious. He has grown up in Britain while his older brother Ikudayisi has spent much of his life in Nigeria and, much to his younger sibling’s annoyance, often slips back into his native Yoruba when talking, except that is when he is speaking English in a dubious American accent.
The two boys are dispatched by their not-to-be-messed-with mother to buy some milk, and duly set out across their south London estate. Thwarted at the first shop they come to by a Muslim shop owner who bars their way demanding that Yemi remove his hoods, their simple mission starts to takes on an epic quality.
Their main problem comes in the form of Armani, a mouthy mixed race girl who mocks the brothers’ African background and seems determined to stir up trouble. They later encounter a terrified, trembling elderly white woman who is convinced they will try to rob her, despite Ikudayisi’s polite demeanour, and two comedy cockney coppers keen to stamp out black-on-black violence but who, again, don’t actually listen to either of the boys, having already made up their own minds about the situation.
Gone Too far!, Agbaje’s debut play, appeared in the Royal Court’s Upstairs theatre in February 2007. Since then some of the issues she raised have been dealt with in work by Roy Williams, Kwame Kwei Armah and Femi Oguns but here, restaged with the original cast, Agbaje’s play still feels fresh and energetic, only now it is part of a broader discourse.
There is a hunger and a passion to Agbaje’s writing though occasionally she seems to be taking on too many issues at once. Gone Too Far! looks at the divisions that exist between people of African and Afro-Caribbean descent, the differing social status of those with darker and lighter skin tones, the gulf between British-born Yemi and his Nigerian brother. She has a lot to say and character development sometimes takes a backseat to the various arguments, but she explore all these avenues with humour and intelligence and a good ear for the way a conversation can bleed into an argument and how a poorly judged remark can be taken the wrong way.
This is a, near enough, adult free world. Though the boys’ mother is a fearsome presence, she remains off-stage, a voice shouting from the wings (not alays audibly it has to be said); and those grown ups we do see are stereotypes, there to serve a purpose. Agbaje is more interested in young people and the world they inhabit, how the problems of past generations have filtered down, stripped of their context. The most eloquent, composed character is Blazer. Eighteen and also Nigerian, he tries to teach Yemi to be proud of where he comes from, to rejoice in his language and his African name.
Here you can hear the playwright talking. But in a good way. Agbaje’s messages are clear: respect yourself and others; know yourself, your heritage and your culture; pick your battles wisely. When a knife is pulled it happens because of poor communication and the desire not to lose face, rather than any real aggression. A person can go too far, they can pick the wrong road, but they can also stop, make a choice, turn away.
The scenes are interspersed with pulsing, angular dance sequences, the gestures of conflict turned into something striking. The cast are uniformly energetic and grasp the heart of the material. Tobi Bakare and Tunji Lucas are both excellent at conveying the brothers’ mix of affection, irritation and incomprehension of one another. Zawe Ashton is also memorable as the aggressive Armani. Ashton saves her from being a one-note villainess and it is clear that insecurity plays a large part in her fondness for making a scene. Still it is pleasing to see her taken down a peg or two by her friend Paris (played by Bumni Mojekwu) when she reminds Armani that she had to school her in how to do her hair, and how to handle herself. (I introduced you to rice and peas!)
This is a play of rough charms and real energy. Agbaje’s writing has a resonance and relevance and, though it can veer towards the didactic, the impact on some audience members was clear. That was spot on I heard one woman say to her friend as we left the theatre that was my life up there.