Joe Guy @ Soho Theatre, London

directed by
Femi Elufowoju, jr
Roy Williams’ latest play is a messy, noisy thing. But don’t let that put you off. While its story leaps all over the place, not always coherently, it is written with punch and never, ever boring.

In a narrative that jumps about through time, Williams tells us the story of Joesph Boateng and how a studious Ghanaian teenager becomes a hugely successful but also hugely troubled football star, estranged from his daughter and facing rape charges. In flashback, we see Joe’s younger self, working in a burger bar, an easy target for the harder kids who push him around, but his skills on the football field offer an exit and we soon see Joe taking pains to trade his accent for something more street sounding. The intervening years are rather glossed over, but it’s clear that the sudden gains in status, in income, strip Joe of something vital.

The play tackles numerous issues. The cultural clash between people with African and Caribbean heritage, the way money corrupts and our galloping celebrity culture can feed fragile egos, turning timid young men into brash, over-confident thugs. At the heart of all this narrative spaghetti is a superb performance by Abdul Salis. As Joe he is alternatively charismatic and repellent, cocky and pathetic, giving a real sense of fragility underneath the bragging.

But though it engages with ideas of cultural identity, it’s not didactic, not at all ‘worthy’ in the worst sense of that word. Williams never let’s things get that dry, instead he injects the premise with humour and energy, dodging the potential narrative hurdles that such a story could present. In fact, at times it feels like emotional subtlety has been sacrificed in his effort to keep things tightly paced and entertaining.

The supporting cast work well with one another, switching nimbly between roles, and, as I said, the whole thing is performed and staged with such energy that any problems I had with the plot (Williams paints the young Joe as a fairly moral, kind-hearted kid, would he really fall quite so low, even with all the temptations that come to surround him? The transformation seems too dramatic) were swept well aside, at least until after the play which, at near enough two hours without an interval, hardly ever drags. It’s only on thinking back that some of the too-neat plot twists and lack of character development started to bother me.

These are small quibbles though in what was a lively night of theatre. Williams dissects the muddle of masculinity in an entertaining way as well as digging into the prejudices that exist between black people of different cultural backgrounds, while throwing in some sharp comic lines for good measure.

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