Elmina's Kitchen, Garrick Theatre, London

A compelling and yet disjointed journey down Murder Mile
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The Independent Culture

Kwame Kwei-Armah has survived the indignity of losing to Ruby Wax on Celebrity Fame Academy in style. Many a man would have emigrated to New Zealand in such circumstances, but Kwei-Armah has toughed it out. Last December saw the unveiling of his fine new play Fix-Up at the National and now we have the opening of this transfer of Elmina's Kitchen, the National Theatre hit that won him the Evening Standard Award for most promising dramatist.

Kwame Kwei-Armah has survived the indignity of losing to Ruby Wax on Celebrity Fame Academy in style. Many a man would have emigrated to New Zealand in such circumstances, but Kwei-Armah has toughed it out. Last December saw the unveiling of his fine new play Fix-Up at the National and now we have the opening of this transfer of Elmina's Kitchen, the National Theatre hit that won him the Evening Standard Award for most promising dramatist.

Elmina's Kitchen is about the here-and-now in Murder Mile in Hackney and its author is just taking off. It's been far too long since we've seen new black work in this sector.

Of course, it's no handicap that Angus Jackson's gripping and generous-spirited production now features the author - popular former star of Casualty (the self-mocking Casualty gag in the play seems a bit forced with Kwei-Armah actually on stage) and recording artist - as the ex-boxer Deli who is now running the eponymous Hackney Cafe and trying to steer his 19-year-old son Ashley (an excellently touchy and defensive Michael Obiora) away from a Yardie street culture of guns and drugs.

Rebellious Ashley thinks that his plantain-burger-selling father is a wimpy disgrace to his community for remaining stoically passive in the face of aggression from a neighbour. So he looks for a role model in Shaun Parkes' dangerously disaffected Digger, a young man who trades in offering the kind of "protection'' that's just a threat in transparent disguise.

The play explores the tensions between fathers and sons in three generations of the black working class. They are brought together by the death in prison of Deli's brother - an event which triggers the homecoming of the estranged head of the clan, Clifton. Terrific in this role, Don Warrington oozes all the misplaced self-satisfaction and sexual vanity that have inflicted as much disruption on the family as firearms and drugs. "You look good, I look great,'' he quips to Dona Croll's sympathetic Anastasia, an older woman, who, once hired, takes the cafe upmarket, while never taking her eyes off Deli.

Black-on-black violence; the easy rejection of education by third-generation black Britons; the difficulties of getting on without seeming to be selling out - the play raises a host of such issues. My tastes incline to preferring Paterson Joseph, the original Deli who conveyed the tension and the tenderness in the character without the faint aura of stoical sanctity transmitted by the author, who has huge presence but is a rather stiff stage actor.

Elmina's Kitchen is a compelling, disjointed piece, but seems at times like a moral melodrama by Arthur Miller and at others, particularly in the banter between Clifton and fellow-oldster Baygee (Oscar James) like an unbuttoned, humane tragicomedy by Sean O'Casey. I hope that in his next play Kwei-Armah might tip the balance more towards the latter mode.

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