Shraddha @ Soho Theatre, London

cast list
Aidan Broadbridge, Anna Carteret, Miranda Foster, Jim Pope, Alex Waldmann, Jade Williams

directed by
Lisa Goldman

Natasha Langridge’s new play is gritty yet magical and filled with poetry. Langridge spent two years researching Romany lives throughout the UK and Shraddha (a Romany term derived from Sanskrit meaning faith: ‘you are what is in your heart’) is the end result. In the programme notes she describes how the persecution that Romany people have endured for centuries continues today: ‘In England it still seems commonly acceptable to call Gypsies “dirty, thieving pikeys”.’ It is clear throughout the ninety-minute production that a driving force behind the play is an attempt to rectify this situation.

The plot concerns a community of Romanies who are being evicted from their settlement of the last 17 years to make way for the construction of sports facilities for the London 2012 Olympics. Against this turbulent backdrop teenagers Pearl, a Romany, and Joe, a ‘gorger’ (the Romany word for people other than Gypsies) from a local estate, meet and begin to fall for each other.

Lisa Goldman’s production presents its audience with the dignified daily lives of Romanies. The family trailer has been lovingly decorated and, when Pearl finishes making sandwiches, she immediately gets out a mini vacuum cleaner to clear the crumbs. The richness of Romany culture and heritage is also explored, most pointedly when Pearls granny, a worldly Anna Carteret, performs a traditional dance to the tune of a live fiddler.

A wire fence encloses the Romany site where the Olympic construction has begun through which Pearl and Joe talk – and even steal a kiss. This is the central and most symbolic piece of Jon Bausor’s versatile set. Obvious yet effective, it never allows the segregated ghettos of the Romanies nor the many barriers between the lovers to be forgotten.

While it can take a bit of effort to follow the play’s fast-paced language, peppered as it is with Romany words, in general the writing serves to expand the audience’s vocabulary; there is a lyrical quality to the Romany-flecked dialogue.

Goldmans production is imbued with a sense of the outdoors. There is a tree that Pearl often climbs and her caravan doesn’t seem nearly as restricting as the house Joe shares with his dad, Dean, the embodiment of anti-Romany sentiment. Deans home is mortgaged to the hilt which keeps him tethered to jobs he hates.

It emerges that many Romanies can as be strongly anti-gorger as some people are anti-Romany and the community seems equally set against the union of these two young people, fearing it will ruin Pearls prospects with Romany men. This hostility forces Joe and Pearl to run away together.

The acting is strong throughout, particularly the performances of the young pair. Alex Waldmann successfully captures Joe’s youthful bravado and shows how it masks the fear and inexperience of someone who has repeatedly suffered brutality at the hands of the men in Pearls world. He gives a lengthy and highly-charged monologue recounting a time he ran off to the Romany Appleby Fair and ended up in a bare-knuckle brawl. Jade Williams lends Pearl a strong, otherworldly quality while superbly encapsulating the conflict she feels in having to deal with such a culture clash on top of everyday teen angst.

The young couples moments of tenderness, youthful ideals and a touching, comic dance scene, soon give way to the harsher realities of survival. This triggers Pearl’s natural resourcefulness, and she feels she is growing into her true self, while Joe finds himself struggling and this leads to fights between them that are as physical as their previous expressions of love.

Though you are left uncertain as to the future of this pair and to that of the Romany community, you come away with a little more insight into the world of this marginalised group. If overcoming ignorance is a key to breaking down prejudices, Langridge has taken a step towards her aim here.

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