Extraordinary play that makes you laugh and cry. And think.

Show of the Week: Tickets From £30 for WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Show of the Week: Tickets From £30 for WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTIONWith a touch of Lewis Carroll, your reviewer holds two contradictory views at the same time. I believe that it's important that writers can bring something of their lived experience to their reviews, not least because that's only fair to the casts and creatives on whom we pass judgment. But I also believe that art transcends the merely personal - it fosters empathy to build bridges between worlds. The former belief is why I did not review this play at the New Diorama Theatre last year and the latter is why I'm reviewing it at the Apollo Theatre now. I think I should favour empathy over experience more often in the future.

Ryan Calais Cameron's black blockbuster is one of those overnight successes that was years in the making. Not just geographically from Camden to Sloane Square (Royal Court) to Shaftesbury Avenue, but technically in the research that went into the writing, in the boldness to cast via Instagram, in the risk-taking that, even in this day and age (maybe especially in this day and age) was required to commit so fully to such subject matter. There was no road map to follow, but, as is often the case for such productions (the rare ones that make it anyway) what emerges is something so vibrantly new and so obviously necessary that it tastes like cold sea water blown, saltily, on to your lips.

We open on an interpretative dance, an indicator that movement (by Theophilus O Bailey) and music will reveal as much as the words we are about to hear. It also underlines the fact that Calais Cameron will not shy away from directing duties in his dual role, imbuing his storytelling with a singular theatricality.

Our six lads are soon talking, recounting stories from school to streets to spaces in the heart and in the head. Sometimes they speak in verse, almost rapping without the beats, sometimes they sing, sometimes the words just run out, but we see and we know. What emerges is a composite portrait not of black life today, but of black lives today. Indeed, of lives today.

Without ever toppling into didactic preachifying (except, a mite unnecessarily, at the end) we hear of fathers good and bad and the scars they leave, physical but, more painfully, mental. We learn of how confusing it is for a child to be othered from a time before they even knew what 'other' means. We watch on as identities are adopted as a means of navigating a hostile world, and how friends can disagree and not fall out over where they stand in this world with no atlas.

Most of all, we watch on as black men's personalities are shaped by individuals, by the past and by the environment of today. It's a specifically and unapologetically black narrative, but there's a universality to the issues, to the challenges, to the pleasures and the pain that dissolves any simplistic siloing - this is a West End play not as a product of any bleeding heart liberal ethos with a box-ticking exercise to show off, but because it's a play that is worthy of a home in one of the great theatres of the world.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the post-interval examination of toxic masculinity, where it comes from and the price it exacts on the men who propagate it and those who suffer its fallout. One could all but hear heads nodding at some of the lines, young men and young women recognising pieces of themselves, parents realising that they might not have done the best thing at the time, vulnerabilities shared and thus understood that little bit more. It's in these stories that the therapy dimension of the writing comes across most strongly, but the language retains its bursting energy, seldom descending into the comforting greyness of abstract nouns and textbook explanations. The play is shot through with humour as its preferred vehicle for making its points.

The six actors each play an unnamed (on stage, if not in the programme) role and inhabit each of them with a level of commitment that really should become a template for drama schools.

Emmanuel Akwafo gets plenty of laughs as the lad who has all the self-effacing charm but none of the confidence. Mark Akintimehin is a bundle of aggression and we soon find out why when he tells us of his childhood. Nnabiko Ejimofor is forced to live in the shadows, his life a minority within a minority.

Aruna Jalloh is embracing a more middle class life, his education instilling the confidence to explore what black affluence might look like. Kaine Lawrence and Darragh Hand are the ladies men who come to consider that a life rooted in sexual pleasure is a life devoid of emotional growth.

The narrative of the play, with characters opening up about their hopes and fears and the anxieties that paralyse them, demands generosity in the created world, but it's underpinned by the generosity we sense between the real people on stage, so adding a layer of verisimilitude that is the product of alchemy rather than craft. We buy the men we see as much as the men they play.

The production isn't without flaws. The pace flags a little in the second half and there's a tad too much underlining of points we've already understood about the psychological damage wrought in a society in which the phrase black lives matter needs to be capitalised and campaigned for. But such pettyfogging ignores the pyrotechnics in the writing and performances, the impact of seeing and hearing such material in this venue and the wit and warmth that tickles your funny bone while simultaneously digging you in the ribs with the unstated but urgent question, lived experience or not. What are you going to do about it?

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy at the Apollo Theatre until 7 May

Photo Credit: Ali Wright


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Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to see so much of his home city's theatre. He writes about ... (read more about this author)



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