I didn't myself much care for Rafta, Rafta, a big, amiable hit at the National Theatre. Call me a snooty old stickler for equal opportunities but it strikes me that a dated, not very funny comedy by a second division white author, even when transplanted to the Asian community by a cutting-edge talent, is not the best thing that could have been rustled up for any of the constituencies at which the piece is targeted.
But I was very taken by a comment that Meera Syal, – who, along with the wondrous, effortlessly Shakespearean Harish Patel is a sound reason for nonetheless seeing Rafta, Rafta – made about the show in the pre-publicity. She said that it felt liberating to be in a comedy where Asian characters were not reduced to the status of problematic units in some heavily issue-driven drama about race. And that, I guess, explains why the production has been such a success.
Though I doubt that she intended it, there seems to be the implication, however, that a play must be one of those things or the other. To which the glowing riposte is: no, it doesn't – just look at the work of the prolific, politically astute, warm, funny, principled and often bracingly less than 100-per cent work of the black dramatist, Roy Williams. In plays such as Sing Yer Heart Out For the Lads and Fall Out, this author has proved that he has an unerring instinct for homing in on the key combustible areas and the most intractable conflicts and contradictions in multiracial Britain.
But – to put it somewhat controversially – he seems to me to combine the dialectical gifts of a David Hare with the hilarious social observation and droll sense of the ridiculous of a Jonathan Hardy, who are not two authors you could imagine bedding down together very willingly.
It may not be absolutely top-flight Williams, but Joe Guy – a new piece now receiving its London premiere at Soho Theatre in Femi Elufowoju Jr's zestful, wickedly witty and beautifully acted co-production with the New Wolsey, Ipswich – offers a rich illustration of this happy blend of impulses.
Portrayed in an immensely charismatic tour de force of vulnerable swagger and sympathy-twisting tragicomedy by Abdul Salis, Joe the protagonist develops from an insecure, cautious schoolkid, bullied because of his ethnicity as a "pure" Ghanaian by other kids of all colours, into a successful soccer star who compensates for his early humiliations by clamping on a cool British-Caribbean carapace. His tabloid-publicised womanising breaks the heart of the mother of his child and rebounds on him when he's accused of raping a female fan in his hotel suite.
Starting with an interview where the journalist ambushes him for information about this alleged crime, the play leaps back in time and ends a few years after the career-destroying scandal has subsided. As a structure, the play puts you in mind of a mosaic where each individual tessella has been expertly crafted but then put into a slightly lopsided and untidy arrangement.
Once again, though, enhanced by spot-on performances from a company that includes the superb Mo Sesay and Heather Craney, Williams demonstrates his keen knack of dramatising contradictions. There is terrible edgy internal racism within the non-white community; Joe seems to go to the bad both because he is trying to impress whites and their dodgy expectations and because of his father's warpingly purist pride in their Ghanaian background.
And once again, he shows that humour is no respecter of the seriousness of "issues". There are some lovely episodes where irrelevant, irreverent comedy acts like a buoyant obbligato to the main tune and theme. Yes, there's a twist that relies on coincidence; yes, you feel that the ghastly world of soccer would damage any sensitive boy; and yes, the ending (back-to-back scenes depicting Joe as alienated son and then estranged father) comes over as both muted and forced. But the supple humanity of the piece and its undoctrinaire flair make one grateful once more for the talent of Roy Williams.
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