Theatre: Inside Black Britain

January 13, 2024
2 mins read

By Shaun Hutchinson
Wednesday, August 6, 2008.
Two teenaged brothers; a simple journey across town. Straightforward? Not really. This is a trip through a grim, inner city London estate. The young men have to navigate rivalries and tensions, confrontations and violence, as well as racism and police harassment. As if this isn’t enough there’s parental discipline to deal with whilst coping with adolescence and its problems of acceptance, shame and pride.
In Bola Agbaje’s debut play – which developed under the Royal Court’s 2007 Young Writers Programme – these issues are played out in an enthralling performance by a mainly young ensemble cast.  There’s also Black on Black issues related to shadism and culture, and the deeper questions of identity and authenticity.
But this is by no means a dark drama; there’s also humour and comedy in the performance.  And the mostly young, stylish and multinational audience appreciates it. The sprinkling of Yoruba words and the recognition they bring out show that the Nigerians in the house know what’s going on. This is important because a central theme is the interplay and rivalry between Londoners of Nigerian and Caribbean descent.
In a concise 90 minutes without intermission – part of the Royal Court’s Upstairs Downstairs Season – the writing is meticulous and perceptive. It’s like a teenager’s short-term attention span conversation – all excitement and slang – flipping from subject to subject in jumpcut style.
Directed by Bijan Sheibani in 10 snappy scenes, some involving several performers, others just the two principal characters – Yemi [ as an intense Tobi Bakare] and Tunji Lucas with an impressive range of languages and accents – in a stylishly dramatised series of confrontations and conversations interspersed with silhouetted dance sequences.
As the younger, streetwise Yemi, and older but recently arrived and innocent Ikuyadisi make their way across town, their sibling rivalry is framed by a battle over credibility.
One supposedly urban and sophisticated, the other Nigerian and less so, Agbaje focuses on the ambiguity prevalent in Nigeria as well. Despite fluency in his native tongue, Ikuyadisi hilariously resorts to a fake US accent. But the writer doesn’t rehearse tired and superficial arguments over what it means to be an authentic African. 
The resentment of dark skinned sisters towards their lighter hued rivals is captured just right in a debate between mixed heritage Armani [a provocative but assured performance by Zawe Ashton] and darker than blue Paris [Bunmi Mojekwu]
Verbal and physical violence stalk the lives of these youths. Agbaje’s incendiary dialogue unmasks how the passion of youth can erupt into pointless aggression and tragedy. With designer James Cotterill’s use of the Jerwood’s compact high ceilinged stage and grey prison-like walls, the impression of some grim estate is real. It’s all the more poignant given the current spate of teenage-related violence, stabbings and deaths in Britain, this year.
This 2008 Olivier Award Winner really is a snapshot of a time and place; and as such has its weaknesses – speechmaking on grand themes is never a substitute for realistic dialogue.
But it is a pulsating, optimistic piece of writing, captured perfectly when the youthful cast take off their dreaded hoodies and the two brothers don traditional Nigerian robes.
An impressive debut!
Gone Too Far
Written By – Bola Agbaje
Director – Bijan Sheibani
Showing at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Downstairs Season 23 July – 09 August 2008
Following its run at the Royal Court, Gone Too Far! Will be presented at The Albany in Deptford 14-16 August and at Hackney Empire 19-23 August.
Main picture: Zawe Ashton (Armani) in Gone Too Far! at the Royal Court. Photograph: Tristram Kenton.
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine’s arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.
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