Pigeon English

Sun 18th – Sun 25th August 2013

reviews

Imogen O'Sullivan

at 15:11 on 23rd Aug 2013

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Adapted from Stephen Kelman’s novel of the same name, ‘Pigeon English’ is a collaboration between the Bristol Old Vic Young Company and the National Youth Theatre, showcasing some breathtaking young talent. The opening soundscape blurring beatboxing, piano, clapping, and singing, is indicative of the exciting collage of mediums this piece utilises, with spoken word, rapping, and film projections seamlessly integrated to create a visually arresting show simmering with energy and life.

‘Pigeon English’ explores the lives of Harri and his family, who have made huge sacrifices to leave Ghana for London. David C. Johnson and Brandon Cook as Harri and his best friend are beautifully sweet and funny portrayals of young adolescence, their relationship highlighting the uncomfortable middle ground between child and adult. Alice Downing is brilliantly tragic as Never Normal Girl - her story never fully explored but playing around the outskirts of Harri’s life. Unfortunately, Downing is less convincing in her first brief role as a female police officer.

Many of the cast members are stronger playing younger roles; Felix Pilgrim simply coming across as too young in his depiction of a school teacher. Paris Iris Campbell as Mamma is the notable exception to this. Campbell exudes a refreshing breath of life and brightness into a tragic adult world – her attempt to shield her young son from the inherent racism she encounters is a wonderfully touching moment among the bleak portrayals of the damage people do to each other.

Johnson gives a stunning performance as the heart of the piece, capturing all the curiosity and innocence of childhood alongside a heart-warming faith in people. His final remarkable acrobatic performance lifts the audience along with him in a celebration of young love; an endearing portrayal that makes the ending all the more tragic.

Throughout the piece these young actors show terrific commitment, particularly the performers playing dogs. Ensemble pieces flood the stage with colour and energy – the mock-music video centring on Julius, and then the Carnival, mingle celebration with an underlying sense of fear and violence, particularly prevalent in the attitudes towards women. Whilst the large ensemble makes for striking set pieces, the stage often seems too crowded and crammed with stories, particularly during scene changes, and some characters appear superfluous to the action – one member of the DFC gang appears to have only one line in the entire play.

This production is exciting, vibrant and polished, but, unfortunately, the theme seems a bit tired. Exploring the assumption that “it’s always kids innit”, is ubiquitous in film and television, and the clichés of swearing and shanking that abound in this piece don’t add anything new to the debate. ‘Pigeon English’ offers a bleak vision of youth culture which jars with the talented and bright young people we see on the stage before us.

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Natasha Hyman

at 15:35 on 23rd Aug 2013

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Adapted from the novel by Stephen Kelman, ‘Pigeon English’ is a story about life on London’s urban estates. Filtered through the eyes of twelve-year-old Ghanaian, Harri, it is also a tale of assimilation, and the dangers of gang culture. This really did feel like a play about young people by young people. The characters used slang that young people use, and were very rarely stereotyped. Gbolahan Obisesan has also created an adaptation that skilfully weaves spoken word into naturalistic dialogue.

Direction from Miranda Cromwell is consistently innovative. Combining spoken word, beat boxing, music, dance and multimedia to create a mass of creative material. The use of an onstage screen was particularly effective, enabling us to see a paper pigeon flutter away into the distance. The screen was also used to great effect to create recurring motifs; whenever Harri speaks of Poppy - his school crush whom we never see - we get a video projection of sunlight through trees.

At times, the stage does feel cluttered with the wealth of different performance styles. The production could certainly use a larger space to give it some room to breathe. Also, it did mean that, at times, it felt more like a skills showcase which overshadowed, rather than served, the story. This was especially obvious at first, where the plot was choppy, as the main preoccupation of the production seemed to be to flood us with a sensory experience, rather than developing a narrative.

However, the production was pulled through by some outstanding performances. David C. Johnson was especially captivating as Harri, with his commanding vocal presence and easy way of charming the audience with his smooth dance moves and cheeky asides. Paris Iris Campbell as Harri’s mother, was also a standout performer, powerfully capturing her character’s difficulty in maintaining her cultural traditions and ideals in a different country.

This was a difficult concept executed well; the cast fluidly multi-role between adult and child characters, breaking into song and spoken word without a bat of an eyelid. Alongside this talent is the explosive energy of the performers - often a trademark of National Youth Theatre productions - I was left reeling.

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