White Boy @ Soho Theatre, London

cast list
Luke Norris
Obi Iwumene
Vanetia Campbell
Timi Fadipe

directed by
Juliet Knight
There’s something very black and white about this play that tackles the grey areas of life in the modern, urban, school playground.

Tanika Gupta’s play, returning to Soho Theatre, with the National Youth Theatre, after a successful run in August 2007, explores the way that kids from different backgrounds and cultures interact in a school setting.

Luke Norris plays jittery Ricky, a manic bundle of energy and tension. His best friend is Obi Iwumene’s competent, solid Victor. Their other friend Zara, played by Vanetia Campbell, is a mixture of sassy young woman (“You was hot, now you is not” she spits at one point) and gushing little girl, incessantly gossiping with her mates, and thrilled when the object of her affection glances in her direction. Timi Fadipe plays Sorted, a boy whose constant stutter is a reminder of the trauma of his refugee history.

Though there are some nicely observed touches, especially surrounding the linguistic picknmix of patois and street slang that is so commonplace in the playground, Gupta’s attempts at juvenile humour are strained and, sometimes, patronising. The relationship between central characters Ricky and Victor is very basically sketched, more childlike than realistically adolescent. As they become closer as friends, they discover that they have made some major assumptions about the level of privilege the other has had in their lives, but their conversations rarely ring true, often bordering on the preachy, even if the fervency with which they try to engage with one another is powerful.

The play touches on a broad range of topics: Ricky and Victor discuss their sense of being undervalued by society; of being undermotivated, underpaid and underappreciated because of their race, age, or class. That’s quite a list to get through and the last thirty minutes is pretty heavy handed as a result, simply through trying to cram too much in.

Gupta’s writing was more effective in the earlier scenes of the play, with its nicely observed football games and lunchtime montages. But this lightness is lost as the play moves towards its dramatic and distressing climax. The ending is full of sudden shifts of tone, which bewilder the audience rather than enlighten. What started as a sensitive attempt to bring the teenage experience to the stage, is squandered by an excess of turmoil and an overwrought finale.

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