Urban Afro-Saxons, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

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The Independent Culture

In Talawa Theatre Company's new production, six disparate residents of an East End council block are thrown together when they are evacuated from their homes as an asylum-seeker stages a protest by taking a hostage at gunpoint.

Kofi Agyemang and Patricia Elcock's title is an excellent one and renders the poster's tabloid strapline, "What Makes You British?", redundant. And this, perhaps, should be taken as a harbinger of things to come. We will set out to scale great issues, but somehow never break free of gilding lilies in the foothills.

Political drama has come a long way from locking us in a dingy fringe theatre while John McGrath, via a team of boiler suited and malnourished looking thesps, beat us over the head for a couple of hours. The best political drama these days first snares antsy young audiences with a human tale. But here it overbalances slightly, leaving only hints of the answers it sets out to find.

A trip to the off-licence is a deft device that loosens our characters' tongues, but it comes a little late in the play to strike firmly the issues it elicits. Is it too late to fight entrenched racism in the elderly? Must there be a white acknowledgement of a history of oppression before any kind of cultural closure is achieved? Is the Union Jack a badge of hate?

This section also has the odd amusing and spiky gag, as when Cockney Scott (Jay Simpson) wishes racists on the estate would "move to Hornchurch with the rest of 'em".

The culture of panic bleeding into the nation's living-rooms via the broadcast media, leading to paranoid insularity, must be central to any quest for who we, the British, are today. And it is touched on briefly here when the strong, right-thinking Dennis (Steve Toussaint) feels the need to hurriedly explain that he strikes up easy relationships with kids because of his training in social work and not because he is a paedophile. This exchange struck the most chilling note of the night.

Paulette Randall's uniformly excellent cast hit notes of confusion over bitterness in their search for identity. The director has pitched her actors perfectly for a play that, to its credit, never calls for blood.

A play that sets out to say everything but doesn't quite get there still makes for a bold night's theatre. The mixed-race, mixed-age audience fairly buzzed with the issues thrown out as we snaked down the aisle at the end. And even an unsatisfying night at arguably London's best community theatre provides more food for thought than half a dozen supper-friendly West-Enders ever could.

To 15 November (020-8534 0310)

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