Even for those well acquainted with urban theatre, Pigeon English brings new life to the genre with an energetic cast, sharp script and original staging.
The play is the product of a 2011 novel of the same name, written by Stephen Kelman, and follows the story of a young Ghanaian boy, Harri as he fights the day-to-day battles of adolescence against the backdrop of simmering gang warfare in south London.
In many ways, the story is a classic bildungsroman, with moments of real, accessible humour as we watch Harri’s schoolboy crush on Poppy develop, as he bickers with his sister Lydia and tries to avoid the local gang, DFC.
The success of Gbolahan Obisesan’s adaptation of the novel is in maintaining Harri’s innocence and naivety amidst murder, sexual abuse and dire poverty. The audience becomes invested in Harri’s future and attached to his hopes of being reunited with his father and young sister. Despite his facial features betraying his true age, 19 year-old Daniel C. Johnson successfully utilizes his formal dance training to convey the physicality of an eleven-year-old boy, leaping about the stage, chasing his friends and visibly wilting in moments of disappointment.
Confronting the difficulties of a small cast, Alice Downing’s performance is equally noteworthy as she seamlessly slips from playing an abused child to a police officer to a dog, each time embodying the part so well that it was easy to forget that we had seen her just moments earlier under a different guise.
Pigeon English succeeds where other plays set in inner cities have failed, partly because of director Miranda Cromwell’s willingness to engage with the rawness and the rage of these characters on the stage without a hint of self-pity. As Miquita forces Harri into a sexual liaison and as Killa screams at the audience about his fury with the social system in which he is caught, these moments become snapshots of real lives happening in the capital city, lives these actors might have lived themselves under a different set of circumstances.
That is not to say that there are not moments of poignant reflection, most memorably, a piece of spoken word and a point that brings the characters together as they watch their neighborhood burn.
Whilst the cast dictates the level of performance, with strongly sung ensemble pieces and the use of beat boxing and dance, Liesel Corp’s set cleverly fills the gaps that the actors can’t. The use of projections onto a large screen helps to open out the performance space and create the disorientating endlessness of the metropolis, while multiple platforms aid moments of suspense and a sense of life on the ground.
With shows like Channel 4’s Top Boy currently filling our screens with gritty images of gang violence, why is it that this small collaboration between the National Youth Theatre and Bristol Old Vic was so much more powerful? The combination of a small but skilled cast, clever staging and the central role of a convincingly innocent eleven year old boy all aid Pigeon English in being both a shocking and an engaging theatrical experience.