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“Disability’s the new black,” announces Greg, a middle-class, Muswell Hill resident, filming a laughably facile documentary on the street life of Brixton. Disabled Sarah is revealed as an ex-Olympic sprinter, now paralysed from the waist down. Proud of her black-British identity, Sarah tearfully recalls her former status as “the English rose”, “wrapped in the Union Jack”. From her wheelchair, Sarah perceives the way the church exploits her as an icon, not as a person, and she accuses pole-dancer Maria of using her image for a strip show.
In twenty-first century Brixton, religion comes in a plethora of forms and guises. Street-preacher Dona instructs that Brixtonians “hear preaching from six denominations every day. And that’s just between Coldharbour Lane and Electric Avenue… Forget Jerusalem, Mecca. Brixton is the most religious place on earth.” Preachers prey upon the drudgery of daily life to seduce agnostics into the escapist potential of faith. Street-savvy Robbie observes that people prefer the “wilful peace” of ignorance to the reminder of their suffering, upon which religion is premised. Drugs and alcohol – or in Sarah’s case sport – offer more immediate satisfaction.
Agboluaje’s plot follows twenty-something, British-Nigerian Omo, our only constant character throughout the play. Fresh from Brixton Prison, with an implied history of mental illness, Omo joins a mission to street-preach about Christ with over-eager Dona. The religious responsibility soon seems to confuse Omo, who tries to act as a Messiah of the people. Omo believes he has found purity in pole-dancing prostitute Maria and an unexpectedly intense scene enables Sarah to walk again.
After the heightened but stark naturalism of the first two-thirds of the play, here, The Christ takes a bizarre twist into the metaphorical and figurative. Jason, a mysterious figure dressed in black, inexplicably beats up Sarah and separately stabs both Maria and Omo. The trio survives, but their renewed vigour takes a violent shift in focus, from religion to war. The final scene envisages a dark future, as Dona, Robbie, Sarah and Maria appear a year later as a newly formed, seemingly Afro-centric armed group, fighting to revolutionise society across Britain.
Like film-maker Greg, trying to find an original angle on Brixton, Agboluaje’s landscape exposes the contradictions and fractured communities of its street culture; however, within that world, Agboluaje struggles to build the action. It is difficult to engage with our protagonist, whose motivations are muddled by his increasingly unstable mental state. Towards the end, the script suddenly accelerates in pace, but the extreme plot development of the rebel armed group is insubstantially introduced for a final climax.
Although dramaturgically misjudged in structure, and with some expository dialogue, Agboluaje’s script succeeds linguistically, as his innovative pop-culture referencing generates an extremely amusing, contemporary discourse. Agboluaje and director Paulette Randall also capture some hilarious but cleverly symbolic stage imagery, for instance, when two cocaine addicts fight furiously over a powder packet, which they then snort up from the pavement once the bag splits. Aspiring reporter Greg films the scene as naïve preacher Omo looks and learns. The play hovers between comedy and tragedy, a delicate balance of tone that Randall’s production sometimes mismanages, erring on the side of caution with comedy. Though Agboluaje clearly satirises his ambiguous protagonist, Jimmy Akingbola’s Omo is too often a figure of fun and not enough a figure of society.
Randall’s incredibly versatile cast do achieve some wonderful scene-setting, portraying the sheer randomness and miscellany of characters on Brixton’s streets: for instance, an excellent Dona Croll’s old lady, humming over a harmonica as she shakes her Pringles tin for spare change. Javone Prince is almost mesmerising as Greg and a host of other characters, injecting most of the production’s humour with tremendous energy but also clear focus. Libby Watson’s crafty set matches Agboluaje’s thematic ambiguity, as when a lamppost becomes illuminated as a crucifix on which Maria pole-dances in the dodgy gentlemen’s club.
The Christ of Coldharbour Lane is definitely a play of our times and definitely a play of our city. Though packed with issues of race, national identity, poverty and faith, thankfully it avoids preaching to its audience, just as Brixton’s religious indifference sits alongside religious extremism. Yet, in avoiding didacticism by suggesting impressions and contradictions, Agboluaje also evades conclusions and clear messages. Ambitious in scale and heavy to digest, it is nevertheless refreshingly modern and intriguingly faithless.
Rhona Foulis © 2007
Originally published on R&V 08-06-07
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Never heard of this play, Sarah. It sounds different though, and I’m surprised it didn’t get a TV adaptation on the strength of the theme.
Best wishes, Pete. x