Review: CHEEKY LITTLE BROWN, Stratford East

It’s a brilliant springboard for reflection and thought that's slightly too long and thematically broad.

By: Apr. 18, 2024
Review: CHEEKY LITTLE BROWN, Stratford East
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Review: CHEEKY LITTLE BROWN, Stratford East C.S. Lewis said that friendship is, like philosophy and art, unnecessary. “It has no survival value”, yet, “it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Lady loves Gemma. They’ve been best friends forever, but haven’t seen each other in six months. On Gemma’s birthday, Lady shows up at her party.

Playwright Nkenna Akunna takes us along on a disastrous night out. It feels like she should dissect the demise of a friendship, but she never gets to. Directed by Chinonyerem Odimba and produced by award-winning company tiata fahodzi, it’s a riotous play with original songs. This is the opposite of a happily-ever-after, it's a post-mortem examination of the loss of companionship. It’s also, regrettably, all over the place thematically and too long for what it is.

Lady is astonished that, after a life lived in symbiosis with one another, Gemma would ignore her and parade her new acquaintances like Lady was a random nobody. Akunna writes a monologue that’s unashamedly biassed in favour of her protagonist. The fact that we actually don’t learn what happened between them until the very end (and, when we do, the facts aren’t exactly clear) has us on edge. Tiajna Amayo verbalises Lady’s internal harangue with impulsive thoughts and a delightful lack of filter.

Even on crutches, limping painfully after an injury during rehearsals (kudos to her, many actors would have cancelled), she’s a bona fide firecracker. Between camp jealousy and brash anger, Amayo is colourful in presence and language. Her magnetic personality and unconcealed emotion make it impossible not to feel for her, regardless of the intensity of her flaws. As she becomes increasingly more drunk, her heart breaks further and Akunna’s points get hazier.

The piece meanders into tentative tangents about family, food, and the patriarchy that remove the focus it had at the start, verging into confident feminism and enough social critique to belong to a different show. Regardless, cheeky little brown remains a play about sadness and depression, loneliness and isolation, identity and growth. The garish hues of Aldo Vazquez’s set with its pink balloons and gold lamé curtain become an interesting clash against Lady’s mental misery.

Though compelling on most angles and featuring an extremely charismatic performer, the project drags a bit. Running just south of 90 minutes straight through, it could be trimmed by almost an entire third and there would still be enough time to venture into their fallout properly. Akunna’s songs help the pace, adding an extra layer of fun and rhythm with their pop blends while Odimba moves Amayo across the space with a natural flow. She first paints an imaginary crowd around Lady and then leads her into the bowels of London.

It’s not a perfect production, but it’s one of those whose impact reaches further than the stage. While its themes are only hints, we all end up relating to Lady. That’s where the beauty of Akunna’s writing lies: in the achievement of being universal while describing an idiosyncratic accident in someone else’s life. It’s a brilliant springboard for reflection and thought.

cheeky little brown runs at Stratford East until 20 April.


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