Off the Endz, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London

Captivated by the ex-con's tale
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There are "destination restaurants" that you'd go well off-route to eat at. By the same token, there are "destination dramatists", whose work you would go out of your way to see. After plays at the Royal Court and the Tricycle that showcased her serious gifts, Bola Agbaje is one such. She follows up now with Off the Endz, a piece that illustrates her extraordinary natural talent for blending penetrating moral insight, razor-sharp awareness of the zeitgeist and a lovely mischievous wit that is prepared to go off-message in order to be artistically on-song. It's a mark of this that this new piece manages to be defiantly funny, even while sending out the unfashionable message that, however rotten society may be, it's no use blaming it for all the frustrations of your own life. You have to take personal responsibility for your own welfare.

Off the Endz is a spirited re-working of the released-prisoner form of play. A newly liberated con trying to adjust to a society that may have changed beyond recognition during his (or her) time in clink offers a handy means whereby a dramatist can magnify for the audience the strains of contemporary living and the recent shifts of political mentality. One thinks of the unreconstructed socialist who emerges (somewhat improbably vacuum-fresh in his old beliefs) in Mark Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids, only to discover a world in which addictions have replaced the old ideological faiths – a fact that enables one to date the play as pre-9/11.

Agbaje's analytic grasp can embrace the global – Detaining Justice, her recent play at the Tricycle was a wonderfully humane, humorous and mordantly indignant dramatisation of the dilemmas and difficulties inherent in asylum-seeking. In Off the Endz, the canvas may be somewhat smaller, but there's a strong sense that the difficulties experienced by these quirky, beautifully realised individuals are symptomatic of problems that ramify out into a world much wider than the London where they live. This impression is enhanced by Ultz's rather abstract outer design for Jeremy Herrin's expertly acted production which plants the interior action in a soulless, lunar landscape of graffitied-over corrugated-iron walls – the scrawl standing out toothpaste-white again a neon-like lime green.

Ashley Walters is a dab hand at playing the kind of incorrigibly cocky but also rather sexy young man that a woman might want to both slap down hard and then snog. He brings this ability to the role of David, a newly released 26-year-old black prisoner who wastes no time reasserting his serene chauvinism and his parasite's "charm". The trouble is that Kojo (the excellent Daniel Francis), his bosom brother-in-arms is now a dad-to-be in a job with a suit, living in a rented flat with the lovely pregnant Sharon (the enchanting Lorraine Burroughs) who was once David's squeeze. They are trying to buy their own home, but that depends on a credit rating that is liable to slump to rock-bottom when Kojo, without telling Sharon, is laid off. When they were boys, David would steal state-of-the-art trainers. Kojo would save for them to the point where they were out of date by the time he got to wear them. But with debts spiralling, will Kojo be able to resist the drug-dealing David's philosophy. And what will happen if the rival on their patch turns out to be a gun-wielding, conscienceless boy of 12?

The play is very funny as well as disturbing – alert to the ways in which the world would be full of strange surprises for David, such as the huge plasma television that suddenly switches itself on because of SkyPlus. There's a peach of a scene between him and a sorely tried but hilariously firm, fair and unavailing lady at the job-seekers' office who turns out to be as quirkily humane as she is physically hefty. Another ace play from Agbaje.

To 13 March (020 7565 5000)