Has there ever been a more timely piece of programming than transferring Gone Too Far!, the Royal Court’s Laurence Olivier Award-winning hit from 2007’s Upstairs season, to the theatre’s larger Downstairs theatre?
The play, which features blade-wielding youths vying for respect, received its press night yesterday amid the current focus on knife crime in the capital. But there is more to Bola Agbaje’s often comic drama than urban thuggery.
On Agbaje’s London estate the kids are struggling to find themselves and know truly who they are, each presenting an image of who they think they should be. Nigerian Ikudayisi speaks with an American accent, while younger brother Yemi refuses to acknowledge his African roots. Fast-talking youth Armani ties herself in knots about her heritage, and even the local Bangladeshi shopkeeper wears a football shirt to assert his Englishness.
Amid the struggle to know themselves comes the fight for respect, the need to prove oneself in a world where it seems nothing, especially respect, is freely given.
Agbaje’s script, which is rich in the poetry of urban language and flows at pace in the hands of director Bijan Sheibani, touches on arguments that have been seen before in the work of playwrights such as Kwame Kwei-Armah, but places them in a more youthful setting. The tensions between the West Indian and African black British populations, differences that arise just from skin tone, the cultural difficulties that can be attached to children of mixed race marriages, and the comically confused message sent by the police overenthusiastically tackling ‘black on black’ crime are all explored in the story of a trip to the shops for a bottle of milk.
Among the youthful ensemble cast, Tobi Bakare as Yemi is a coiled spring of suppressed anger, his frowning eyes burning with a passion of confusion and fear. Tunji Lucas as Ikudayisi is naïve about his new ‘hood, confused and bemused by a world in which friendliness has become taboo, and Zawe Ashton, who is quickly becoming a Royal Court regular, is both magnetically watchable and entirely detestable as the bullying, quick-speaking, overtly aggressive 15-year-old Armani, who already believes she knows everything there is to know about everything and doesn’t mind telling the world.
Director Sheibani has used cleverly choreographed dance from Aline David to split the scenes, soundtracked by aggressive thumping bass that gets the blood pumping; the same blood which, by the end of the play, will have been spilled, more out of confusion and bravado than malice.