SLAVES To 20 February.

London.

SLAVES
by Rex Obano.

Theatre 503 Latchmere Pub 503 Battersea Park Road SW11 3BW To 20 February 2010.
Tue-Sat 7.45pm except 13 Feb 6.30pm Sun 5pm.
Runs 2hr 35min One interval.

TICKETS: 020 7978 7040.
www.theatre503.com
Review: Timothy Ramsden 29 January.

Strong scenes but various elements don’t fully fuse.
As his first play begins, Rex Obano rushes to tell us about the prison where it’s set and the racial matters at its core. There’s the girlfriend visiting prisoner Jenks, passing drugs in a kiss. Then the second scene’s institutional racism, as fast-track Black officer Chris Jackson is inducted into prison regulations by the experienced White working-class warder he already outranks.

As staff relationships emerge, there’s the question of how much old-hand White (a scowlingly forceful Paul Bentall) and David Burt’s smoothly contemptuous prison-governor Rooney feel venomous towards Jackson because of his ethnicity, and how much because he’s from a different tribe inflicted on them: graduate high-flyers. And, how their combined cultural dislike is balanced by his still being one of them, to be included in any cover-up.

Obano demonstrates Chris’s initial arrogance – he’s years ahead on Diversity matters but has a callow determination to change things for a brighter, politer future – given a series of knocks by life and work. Yet the elements in this stay separate: Chris having been at school with one of the prisoners, his wife’s briefly-mentioned ex-alcoholism, even the moment he’s body-searched for drugs himself, as if the White establishment is out to get him, while elsewhere they’re already congratulating him on the kind of prison governor he’ll make.

While Scarlett Johnson contrasts prisoner’s girlfriend and officer’s wife finely in appearance, voice and manner (aided by Lorna Ritchie’s costumes, about the only splurge in an otherwise severely minimalist setting), women register as little more than supernumaries in the lives of the prison men. And, despite Beru Tessema’s mix of aggression and vulnerability as the prisoner Jenks there’s little sense of why Chris seems so sympathetic to someone who arranges the harassment of his wife.

It may be the point that prison life takes over the people who work there. Adetomiwa Edun’s Chris graduates from early assurance through compromise and humiliation to a sense of the life’s complexities. But it’s in the prisoners’ interactions, the mix of violence and rumination, of rebellion and institutionalisation that the play and Nadia Latif’s production come most to life.

White: Paul Bentall.
Rooney/Gadd: David Burt.
Chris Jackson: Adetomiwa Edun.
Reuben: Cornell S John.
Melissa/Jessica: Scarlett Johnson.
Con: Owen Oakeshott.
Mohammed/Jonathan: Rob Ostlere.
Jenks: Beru Tessema.

Director: Nadia Latif.
Designer/Costume: Lorna Ritchie.
Lighting: Michael Nabarro.
Sound: John Leonard.
Make Up: Ta Co chung.
Tattoo: Jake Galleon Fisher.
Fight director: Bret Yount.
Dramaturg: Sarah Dickinson.
Assistant director: Tim Hoare.

2010-01-31 13:55:14

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