Philobiblon: Elmina's Kitchen

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Elmina's Kitchen

On Friday evening, partly as a small gesture of defiance to the terrorists, I went to a subdued West End for an evening of theatre. By pure chance (it was the only show I found starting at 8pm and I was running late - why DO most theatres start their shows so early?) I ended up seeing Elmina's Kitchen, happily, since I might easily otherwise have missed it.

Set in Hackney, east London, it is entirely played in the eponymous cafe, where a black father, Deli, is trying to deal with his failing business, his son's fall into the hands of his old friend, a Yardie gangster, his brother's release from prison, and his own father's attempt to sponge off him, after decades of absence.

Shakespearean is an adjective that might well be applied to this beautifully structured work: in its effective transition between slapstick comedy and genuine tragedy, in its dramatic but entirely believable ending (which I won't give away), and its lively, witty language of the street, the comparison with the Bard is warranted.

The playing is uneven: Shaun Parkes as the gangster Digger exudes menace, George Harris as Deli's sleazy father and Dona Croll as the saucy waitress whose motivations are complex and perhaps nefarious, are all excellent; Croll particularly holds the stage, but Kwame Kwei-Armah, the author of the piece, doesn't seem to me to live up to being the best-known actor here (perhaps it is significant know for TV). He doesn't quite force you to look at him the way he should.

Nonetheless, the production is gripping, despite the fact that the language is entirely that of the street, and this viewer certainly missed some details in the dialect. I'm still trying to work out an insult/swear word that sounded something like "blood cloot" that occurred several times - can anyone translate? A black woman in the foyer at interval was amused when I commented that the programme should have a glossary, but really I wasn't joking.

It is salutary that this is a language of London with which I'm entirely unfamiliar. The play also addresses many issues that I read about only in newspapers: the problems in the black Caribbean community of maintaining relations between fathers and sons, the attractions of crime, and guns, and the general seductiveness of violence, yet it is never preachy or driven by its "issues": this is a story, not a piece of social work.

But it was great to see the audience was about half Black, and mostly young, which is certainly not what you usually see in the West End. The (all white) ushers in their bow ties looked rather uncomfortable and out of place.

But if the West End is to survive this is an audience it needs to attract, and for the actors it is a wonderful audience - far noisier, more reactive and lively than the average; it must have been rather like that in the Elizabethan Globe.

(The Guardian's view is here.)

* The play has also, I found, been filmed by the BBC and is available on video.

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