Most props, most props, you could hold them in your hand. A suitcase. A tooth. A (shudders) doll. They’re part of the pleasure of theatre, the imagination made palpable.
But sometimes, sometimes they stay imaginary. In the stonkingly vivid production of Little Baby Jesus by Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, who won this year’s JMK award for emerging directors, the props are imaginary but so real you’d swear you’d seen them. Arinzé Kene’s 2011 play immerses us in the lives of three north London teenagers, stuttering their way from being goofballs and rude gals to something like grown ups. They reach out and grab you, creating word pictures with weight and sharp edges. They may not hold physical objects, but they evoke them so fully they might as well be there on the eyeball-intimate Orange Tree stage.
You see them all: the football that gets lobbed over the school fence, igniting a year 11 scandal. The stones that bounce off a girl’s back – and worse – when she’s hounded by a taunting gang. And the magnets that are an irresistible running image of attraction, repulsion and unquenchable curiosity about the world, you surely see them in Rachel Nwokoro’s nimble, questing fingers, testing the ferromagnetic frisson in every surface she encounters.
The first half is a bunsen whoosh of energy, every speech flaring with youngblood fun and fervour. Later, that energy eddies and stills, as consequences bite, and the three stumble into unforeseen connections. It’s all in the words of Kene’s play – and what words. The woman next to me, when not yelping with laughter, was muttering choice phrases as if to commit them to memory. It’s language and thoughts and swift currents of feeling that make up this story, and that help construct the way we imagine our place in the world. Real talk.
Tara Usher’s design is all but unfurnished – just two plastic chairs and a halo of light tilting above the stage. Down below, Fynn-Aiduenu announces himself as a director who builds a rapport with actors. It’s delicious to see how he’s worked with this dauntless trio (Nwokoro, Anyebe Godwin and Khai Shaw). Each has bounce to burn, pockets full of cheek, access to a whole pantone spectrum of nuance from hilarity to heartbreak. And whatever movement consultant DK Fashola has done is some kind of magic – each of them owns their swagger in a school blazer, but can stumble like a toddler losing their balance. It’s a world made real.
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