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Tanika Gupta’s new play for the National Youth Theatre could not be more topical. In recent years the NYT has been increasingly commissioning plays about its members’ own world and the lives of young people today. This play set in and around a gated school yard is a good example. As well as dealing with issues close to them, it also enables these young performers to draw more directly on their own experience and observation. While it may not necessarily be less challenging than trying to inhabit the characters and interpret the world of Shakespeare or Sophocles, it does not demand playing outside their natural range and, by not asking them to act a yet-to-come maturity or add decades to their natural age, encourages them into a closer examination of the characters they play.
The white boy of the title is Ricky (Luke Norris), an older teen who has adopted a West Indian accent and style markedly stronger than that of Victor (Obi Iwumene), his school’s personable black football star, on whom he clearly dotes and who befriends him. No, this isn’t about homosexuality, it is about the wish to share in what you admire and feel you lack. Nor is it about race. With 23 languages in one year group alone, the multi-cultural mix seem to get along together, though difference may underscore the tensions and antagonisms and two of the girls keep knives in their bags for self protection.
In fact, there is plenty of rampant heterosexuality in the play, including a pair of publicly snogging Muslims, of whom the local Imam probably would not approve. Zara, whom Venetia Campbell makes a diminutive sassy black bombshell, has her heart set on Victor, though he tries to pair her off with Ricky before a kiss wakes up new feelings. Meanwhile, Zara is being pestered by bully boy Flips, who has already sent one boy to hospital, until, with her very firm rejection he declares ‘U Wuz hot, now U is not!’ Flips, whom Daniel Ings plays with a sensitivity that suggests why he resorts to his tough guy stance, is out to hunt down Sudanese refugee Sorted, whom he claims owes him money. Sorted (Timi Fadipe), still traumatised after seeing his parents massacred, goes into hiding until Zara coaxes him out, meanwhile caching her blade with him to avoid being caught with it.
The writing skilfully captures these streetwise voices and multi-layered relationships. It poses, rather than attempts to answer, the question used to promote the show: ‘What does it mean to be a white boy in Britain today?’ (Or to be of any colour for that matter.) When it gives voice to its characters’ frustrations and aspirations it has the ring of truth. Tanika Gupta’s previous work, especially for the partly verbatim Gladiator Games and for Sugar Mummies, involved research and interviews and this has that same authentic feel.
This is especially so in a scene, beautifully played by Norris and Iwumene, when Ricky expresses his frustration to Victor who he thinks has it all made. When Sorted speaks of the horrors he has been through Gupta keeps him reticent but what could be more telling than ‘My country kill my family. Your country kill my hope’ or his fears of the (British) police whom he believes will torture him.
The play opens with a stylized image that combines playground games, fights and bullying as the pupils throw schoolbags between each other, and various realistic scenes are sandwiched between stylized ones which reach their climax when death enters the school yard – the fatal moment is put into slow motion and repeated to great effect. Director Juliet Knight has achieved this with fluidity and gets excellent performances from all her cast. This hour-long play does not really explore the problems and certainly doesn’t pose solutions – that’s the job of social workers and politicians not dramatists – but it does capture a youth culture of the moment that while it echoes the violence of today offers a great deal of hope for the future.
Howard Loxton © 2007
Originally published on R&V 15-09-07
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