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Windrush Square

by on 21 March 2018

Arresting

Windrush Square

Monument Theatre Co at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 22nd March

Review by Matthew Grierson

When we enter the auditorium for Windrush Square, the cast are seated and reading newspapers as though waiting in a laundry or barbers. Then, as the play begins, they move into a carefully co-ordinated routine with the papers lifted to cover and then reveal their faces as they move about the stage. Like an overture, this sets up the show’s mixture of issues and people, and how the former can obscure the latter. It also demonstrates the formidable range of the cast: they work in step physically before first breaking out into a well-choreographed crowd scene and then assuming the roles of the Johnson family of Brixton.

Windrush 1

These switches are dramatically impressive, though the abrupt shifts in action also reflect the lived experience of that community in the 1980s, which we see as the momentum of a busy Brixton market is arrested when each character is in turn stopped and searched by police. The presence of these “Bobbies” – the older Johnsons use the term as though they are forever expecting the constabulary to be the trusted figures of nostalgia – is conveyed not by police presence onstage but by the performers’ reactions, so we continue to focus on, and empathise with, the family and the wider community of which they are part. The invisible police are a recurring motif, yet as the show goes on the action is interrupted by bigger, more distressing events. Almost without fail, joyous set-piece dances conclude suddenly with a fresh atrocity. In other contexts this could be monotonous, but here it puts us inside the lives of this community and the constant, wearying threats they face.

The thread around which the narrative is braided is the Johnson family, under patriarch Elijah. Abayomi Oniyide impresses with the gravitas of his performance, inflected with the humour, heart and hurt that binds his family, and the community, together. Similarly, Romy Iris Conroy as Elijah’s mother Joyce convincingly ages up in her portrayal of an authoritative, yet often cheeky, grandmother, trying to keep her son’s children in check. This does not often prove easy, however. Isaac for instance repeatedly falls foul of the law, and in Sirach Mcleish’s characterisation, we witness his bravado, frustration and sensitivity. Deslie Thomas as sister Ruby, meanwhile, is as vocal as her convictions, and though she cherishes her family is not shy of challenging them.

The family story develops with the romance between younger sister Naomi (Nadeyne Lewis) and her white boyfriend Lucas (Jack Bloss), a sweet relationship that is related from their meeting at dance through his awkward encounters with her family to its end in the concluding scene. While the tone of this is realistic rather than tragic, the social context is such that every scene between them is charged with threat, as though Romeo and Juliet could go straight from the balcony scene to the poisoning.

Such swift changes of tone and mood demand a versatile cast, and this is just one of the qualities for which the half-dozen actors in Windrush Square are to be praised. They have to escalate swiftly from familial banter into righteous anger, and all of them convince in conveying such sudden accelerations. These are not only required by the form of the drama but necessitated by the pressures that the Johnsons are under, as they are always forced to react, or to “Stand Up”, in the words of the Bob Marley song that scores the opening number. There may be only six actors onstage, but they have the energy, presence and volume of a much larger ensemble, and are ably supported by well-executed changes in lighting as well as a complicated array of sound cues used to great effect.

The cast confirm their versatility as the action is punctuated not only by dances but sequences of choreographed movement, as in the opening, while archive radio broadcasts are played to evoke events such as the Brixton riots. Each performer slips effortlessly between naturalistic dialogue and choreography, as well as switching in and out of choric roles as part of the community meetings that Elijah organises. The tone shifts accordingly: while at the meetings characters are given to state facts and set out opinions as though they are the newspapers they carry, the family scenes ground the piece in individual human lives.

An illustration of the way characterisation and social history are perfectly combined comes in the scene where Naomi introduces Lucas to her family. Lucas brings a bottle of rum as a gift, and from the moment Elijah mistakes him as a beggar at his door, this is a well-staged comedy of manners. The rictus grin that the patriarch forces on to his face remains for the next few minutes while he comes to terms with his daughter’s choice of boyfriend: not a silence is wasted in this play. The subsequent dinner, in which Lucas’ faux pas including starting to eat before grace is said and overdosing on hot pepper sauce, earns the audience’s laughs. But it is clear from the Johnsons’ passive-aggressiveness that they are uncomfortable with the young man’s presence. The genius of the scene is that, rather than rehearse racism from the point of view of a black outsider at a white family gathering, it makes the Caribbean family’s experience central, and through their behaviour we read the way they in turn have been treated by the London around them. Their hostility, although unpleasant for Lucas, is a necessary defence given everything we have seen them go through.

It is to the play’s credit that it is not all easy going for Lucas after this ordeal, though the Johnsons relax around him and invite him at least halfway into their lives, even allowing him to persuade them into an ill-timed but hilarious game of Twister at one point. Still, the tension generated when Lucas challenges Naomi over his experiences with her family is subsequently carried over into an awkward scene with her father, but it is defused when the two men struggle through their differences to bond over a shared love of football.

Only at the end does Windrush Square falter slightly. It’s not convincing either that Elijah, so long an advocate of peaceful protest, commits himself to rioting, or that Lucas is suddenly revealed to be a policeman, having mentioned earlier that he was studying criminal justice but giving no other indication of his profession. These only seem to be pretexts to have both men present at the denouement, and the sudden reversals become lost as the excellent choreography is now deployed to poignant effect when one of the Johnsons is shot.

It’s this image that remains, serving as an affecting conclusion to a thoroughly engaging production performed by an accomplished young cast. As Bob Marley sings, the audience too stands up to give them their well-deserved ovation.

Matthew Grierson
March 2018

Photography by Deslie Thomas

 

From → Drama, Reviews

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