Off The Endz @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Ashley Walters, Lorraine Burroughs, Daniel Francis, Madeline Appiah, Brandon Benoit-Joyce (Boy), Omar Brown, Thomas Eghator, Rene Gray, Natasha Williams

directed by
Jeremy Herrin
Bola Agbaje appears to have taken a considerable step back from her flawed but intermittently exhilarating debut, Gone Too Far!

Off The Endz, her third major work and second for the Royal Court, is a straightforward morality tale built seemingly with Duplo blocks.

The play deals in stock types. David and Kojo are friends from way back. David is the bad boy, always in and out of prison, exuding disdain for honest toil; while Kojo is hardworking and determined to get off the Endz (the estate on which they live) and make a better life for himself and his family.
David having just been released after an indeterminate stretch inside for an indeterminate crime and needing a place to stay heads straight to see his friend. There he finds that Kojos girlfriend, Sharon, with who he was once also romantically involved, is pregnant and that the couple have plans to buy a house together. Scornful of the way they live yet happy to sponge of them until he finds his feet, David shows no interest in getting a job of any kind; he sneers at the minimum wage positions offered to him at the Job Centre, regarding such work as beneath him, and decides that drug dealing is the only way he can make the kind of money he wants without losing face.

Kojos attempts to convince him that hard work and slow slog are the better way to go are met with derision, especially when it transpires that, though Sharon doesnt know it, the couple are deeply in debt, weighed down with unmanageable credit card bills, and that Kojo is on the verge of losing his job.

Where Agbaje succeeds is in showing the shifting bonds between the three main characters and showing how David subtly slides between Kojo and Sharon. The central dilemma, however, is set out in a very basic way and theres a total lack of suspense in regards to which way David is going to turn. The fallout from the choices he makes is totally predictable.

Too often Agbaje resorts to interminable domestic scenes (with faint echoes of John Osborne) in which angry people shout over at each other over ironing boards, though she does deliver a few striking moments. The scene where David discovers that the estate is now apparently ruled by weapon-packing primary school kids is both amusing and unnerving, and a clash with Kojos receptionist succinctly illustrates how uneasy David is with normal social situations and how he compensates with aggression, making trouble for himself in the process.

The tone of the play is, at times, pretty condescending; the wants and needs and hopes of these characters are spelt out in the biggest block capitals and while there is such a thing as being elegantly economical in approach, this isnt it. Its all a bit simplistic and naive and feels overstretched at less than an hour and a half. Both world views presented are narrow in the extreme and the play seems closed off to any possible middle ground between Kojo and Sharons joyless, middle class aspirational grind and Davids murky criminal dealings.

Agbaje also leaves some potentially interesting avenues unexplored. Davids attitude to women is pretty repugnant: he expects Sharon to clean up after him and his attitude seems to infect Kojo, to some degree. The play even seems to lay the blame for their debt problems at Sharons door. Despite holding down a job herself, their situation appears to stem from her excessive spending on store cards and ignorance of their true financial state, though Kojos determination to be a man and provide for her and his child, things he sees as fundamentally intertwined, is also a factor. The subtle assertion that women and their material demands can force men into difficult corners and make them act against their better judgement is something it shares with The Wire (though sadly the comparison ends there).

Jeremy Herrins production is relatively punchy and the cast do a solid enough job, particularly Lorraine Boroughs as Sharon who seems to do the most to give some shape to her character. Ashley Walters gives a decent account of a man whose charm and easy manner masks a fairly unattractive personality and who can snap with little provocation. But none of this is sufficient compensation for a thinly written and unsatisfying play.

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