Apart from the cast of Stones in His Pockets – and it's a very close contest – the double act of Jude Akuwudike and Diane Parish is the maddest and merriest in London. The former plays the subtitle part in Brixton Stories (Or the Short and Happy Life of Ossie Jones), the latter his daughter. But these roles in Roxana Silbert's production are just the framework for impersonations of characters in the cultural, criminal and social life of Brixton. Biyi Bandele has freely adapted his novel The Street, weaving Ossie and Nehushta among con men, beggars, drunks and many more. Moving swiftly about the bare stage, they people the worlds of reality and dreams.
Parish's transformations are the more energetic, her face creased into mindless concentration as a rope-skipping convict or sprawling in all directions as a heckler guying a street-corner preacher. Though feminine and slightly built, Parish plays many male roles, her comic vivacity lending conviction to these parts, even when we are asked to believe that she is a lifer, so terrifying that she manages to frighten Death himself from the prison yard. She is also a panhandler, a garrulous parishioner and a Jamaican ganja smoker with a smile as big and bright as Electric Avenue.
Akuwudike, more economical, at times even dainty in his movements, portrays such eccentrics as Mr Bill, who sits by the tube station selling words. "Tintinnabulation,'' he gently offers in return for small coins. "Discombobulate.'' As Ossie, he is taken by his daughter to a play which he neatly fillets and lays out: "I liked the way it said what it had to say, but I don't think it was saying anything.'' We get to see part of the drama that inspires this opinion – it's a Pinter-Tarantino parody in which two gangsters pass the time before an assassination in small talk: "I tell you why you don't like Woody Allen – you're afraid of your emotions.''
But, while containing many delightful moments, Brixton Stories is, ultimately, let down by the container. As reality shades into fantasy, the latter too often becomes overextended and whimsical – I was amused by a dissatisfied customer of Mr Bill's returning some of his words, one of them slightly damaged, but not by his miming of taking the word home, to repair it with needle and thread.
Ossie falls asleep one night and tells us about his dream. Its fantastic events go on and on, and, amusing at first, they eventually begin to pall. When Ossie wakes up and tells us his dream was in fact a coma which lasted 15 years, we think, yes, that's what it felt like.
While the characters are chasing dreams, questions of reality go unanswered. For instance, what is the point of telling us Ossie is an immigration lawyer if we are not shown any of the complex emotions that must afflict any man, especially a black one, in this position? Is Ossie's long dream a retreat from these? Brixton Stories is a lot of fun, but, selfishly, I wish that it were less.
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