Little Sweet Thing @ Hampstead Theatre, London

cast list
Seroca Davis
Marcel McCalla
Glenn Hodge
Kay Bridgeman
Richie Campbell
Ashley Madkwe
Lauren Taylor
Ben Brooks

written by
Roy Willliams

directed by
Michael Buffong
As the two actors square up to each other on the stage – chest to chest and exuding menace – an audible intake of breath ripples through the theatre. Tongues click and heads are shaken. It’s a measure of just how effective Roy Williams’ new drama is that the pouting, squabbling school party that fills over half the Hampstead auditorium is so engaged with the material. Yes, they’re noisy, but they’re laughing, gasping and clapping in (mostly) all the right places, which speaks volumes about the strength of Williams’ writing.

Schoolgirl Tash has a bright mind and a sharper tongue. She’s skilled in putting on a show of toughness; she won’t let anyone penetrate this shell – though her exasperated but caring teacher Miss Jules (well played by Kay Bridgeman) tries her hardest. Tash’s brother Kev is playing similar games. Just out of the Feltham YOI, he’s trying to do the right thing, getting himself a job at the local supermarket and keeping out of trouble. His friends have mixed feelings about Kev’s return. Ryan, not the smartest of boys, clearly idolises his old relay team running mate, but Jamal is less welcoming, he’s made quite a name for himself in the neighbourhood while Kev’s been away and doesn’t want anything to jeopardise that.

The award winning writer of such plays as Sing Yer Heart Out For the Lads, Roy Williams new drama is a perceptive exploration of Britain’s urban gang culture and the pressures on young people growing up in such environments; the need to never lose face in front of your friends, the narrow outlook that can cause even the smartest kids to succumb to the bleak street lifestyle. It’s an accomplished piece of theatre: his dialogue is fresh and believable; his characters are well rounded and real. While the story is occasionally over-familiar and the bleak, bloody denouement is not unpredictable, there’s a power to the writing that transcends that.

Seroca Davis, as tough, smart-mouthed Tash, and Marcel McCalla as the conflicted Kev stand out amongst an incredibly able young cast, who are equally comfortable delivering the rattling dialogue as they are with the well choreographed nightclub scenes – music plays a major part in the production, fuelling the play’s considerable momentum. Director Michael Buffong paces things well. And Ruari Murchison’s simple set just adds to the atmosphere, a stylised urban anyplace with graffiti scrawls surrounding a scuffed basketball court.

It isn’t a perfect production – events occasionally skirt too close to clich and not all the characters are as developed as one would like. Kev’s girlfriend, Angela, who’s off to Manchester to study politics and journalism, seems to have been solely included to provide him with an alternative to the violence of life on the estate. And the symbolic hooded, faceless figure who stalks the basketball court is a tad heavy-handed. But having watched Little Sweet Thing amidst such a rapt, if chatty, crowd it’s clear that Williams’ drama is speaking to its intended audience in a language they can directly relate to, speaking to them in a way that a lot of contemporary drama can still only aspire to.

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