You’ve got to respect Kwame Kwei-Armah. Casualty star, Fame Academy graduate, Late Review pundit, recording artist and award-winning playwright: few individuals manage to appeal to so many people across so many fields. His familiarity as a face on the television may well draw in a certain proportion of the audience for his new production at the Garrick – indeed Kwei-Armah happily admits he hopes this is the case – but it’s the play’s energy and relevance that will end up leaving a lasting impression.
Elmina’s Kitchen is a cross generational tale set in a West Indian takeaway in one of the roughest corners of Hackney. A critical success when it opened at the National Theatre in 2003, this is one of a pathetically tiny number of plays by black British writers – in fact the only one that I can think of – to make it to the West End. Fortunately recent Stratford East success The Big Life will soon be following suit so perhaps this is the start of a welcome trend.
The multi-stranded story focuses primarily on Deli, the owner of the eponymous takeaway, and his battle for his son Ashley. Both father and son inhabit a world where the trappings of gangster culture offer things that college studies and a dead end job can never provide, where violence regularly punctures people’s lives and reputation is everything. Deli’s brother has just come to the end of a stint in prison and he himself has spent time inside, so naturally he fears for his son’s future, especially as he sees him gravitating towards Digger, a local gangster who carries no less than three mobile phones, and a loaded gun, at all times.
Though the first half is sketchy and a little too slow-paced, director Angus Jackson cranks things up considerably after the interval; the jokes flow faster and things quickly get amazingly tense. The narrative is often uneven and the various strands of the story frequently have to jostle for prominence, but Kwei-Armah’s talent for writing strong dialogue eclipses these problems. He expertly captures the speech patterns of his three generations of characters – father, son and grandfather. And there was a definite sense that a lot of the audience found it liberating to hear the language of these characters – undiluted and expletive-flecked as it is – transposed to the stage of a major West End theatre.
Taking on the role of Deli, Kwei-Armah provides a necessarily solid central performance allowing those around him to revel in the showier roles. Dona Croll gives an impeccable performance as Anastasia, the sole female presence in this often brutal masculine world. Though her big emotional revelation comes as a surprise perhaps only to Deli, her presence warms the entire production and her accent, which regularly meanders from West Indian lilt to East End screech, is a total joy. Don Warrington as Deli’s disreputable father Clifton is initially all smoothness and charm but he ends up taking his character to some surprisingly emotive places; and Shaun Parkes as Digger conveys all the necessary menace his role requires.
The action plays out on Bunny Christie’s simple but brilliant set which manages to both echo Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and say something about the changing face of London’s East End. Illuminated photographs of great black leaders look down on the characters turbulent lives as a violent resolution looks increasingly unavoidable. It’s one of many nice touches that makes this play memorable.
Elmina’s Kitchen drags in places and it never matches the power and inventiveness of Roy William’s similarly themed Little Sweet Thing but compared to some of the dusty productions that still regularly make it into the West End this play is a revelation.