“Something’s always going down in Peckham.” So grumbles one of the residents who both spiritedly diss and defend their neighbourhood in this show, exhibiting weariness with its constant soundtrack of police sirens or lack of jobs, but also a fierce local pride.
Actually, things are going down in Sloane Square: first staged in Peckham’s Bussey Building as part of the Royal Court’s Theatre Local project, the production has decamped to the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. 16 Peckham residents perform ten short ‘episodes’ written by ten Royal Court writers; these were staged and streamed online nightly in July, but are brought together now for an ‘omnibus’ edition.
It’s warm-hearted, hyper-local community theatre, played in front of photographs of the area. Peckham: the Soap Opera vibrantly stages a - probably idealised - community, with all the melodramatic rollercoastering of EastEnders; each episode has it’s blazing confrontations or cheating partners, dramas domestic in scale - a missing cat - or more explosive.
It’s a neat premise, but having so many writers - led by Bola Agbaje and Rachel De-lahay but also including Lucy Kirkwood - doesn’t work. Perhaps in bite-sized chunks it was moreish, but here you hunger for something meatiDaisyer; social issues are glanced at rather than grappled with, and characters barely developed before being passed to the next pen.
An evil property manager - a simplistic villain that Peckham residents, young playwrights and liberal audiences alike can comfortably unite against - identifies Peckham as “up and coming” after his hipster daughter moves there. He hatches a dastardly plan to tear down the hair salons, corner shops and jobcentres, to build luxury flats. She, accurately, points out that he’s “completely missing what makes this place cool” (while one writer satirises incoming white students, and their “ironic scotch eggs”, generally they’re not too sharply skewered). The unspoken irony is that shows like may be part of that gentrification - an altogether thornier knot than this light play really attempts to untie.
The non-professional cast give it their all, and there are good performances, as well as some ropey ones. Kola Bokinni exhibits natural comic timing as the hapless teenager Joey, and Alice Fofana is a feisty force of nature as the manipulative, street-sassy hairdresser Lashanna; Kemi Lofinmakin as her irrepressible colleague Chi-Chi injects warmth into what could have been a slangy stereotype. Her claim that she’s got a heart of gold, “like my earrings”, is at least half true.
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