Gbolahan Obisesan's adaptation of Stephen Kelman's novel Pigeon English has a lot of big names behind it: a popular novel and school classroom-reader; an acclaimed playwright; and perhaps the country's two best known youth companies: Bristol Old Vic Young Company and National Youth Theatre. As you would expect, it's a solid and slick production with an energetic young cast. Yet it fails to give its subject matter - immigrant experience and youth criminality in modern London - any kind of radical edge and remains strangely timid in its delivery.
Obisesan has form here: his Fringe First-winning play Mad About the Boy revealed him as one of the most interesting crafters of dialogue in young theatre but it lacked a satisfying narrative arc. The same is true this time, with far too many scenes in Pigeon English demonstrating neither progression of narrative nor of knowledge. Over ninety minutes, this makes for a sometimes frustrating and slow play that often only comes alive in its dynamic multi-media transitions. Escalation within scenes often seems sudden and forced, as if the play occasionally gets cold-feet about how little is happening.
The thing that makes this show watchable is its cast. David C Johnson is fantastic as the lead character, eleven-year old Ghanaian immigrant Harri, through whose eyes we see the story's tragedy unfold. He is charming, wide-eyed and full of boundless energy: the perfect foil for the violence and menace of the contemporary London gang culture in which he finds himself embroiled. Alice Downing as, amongst others, the destitute 'Never Normal Girl' is perhaps the standout performance of an ensemble with absolutely no weak links.
Not only are the cast consistent but also multi-talented: song, street-dance and rap are amongst the show's strongest elements, especially when they allow us a rare chance to view its antagonists sympathetically, as forces of dynamic creativity. More often, however, characterisation is relatively simplistic and the play has a habit of merely exposing, rather than empathising with, the brutality of the society it depicts, which limits the scope of its moral and political insight.
Moreover, the music is often presented as interlude and works better when integrated with diegetic action. The exuberant carnival scene in particular revealed the play’s most complex ideas, like the primacy of body and spectacle as the means of status in the play's world - and I wanted far more presentation in this style. Pigeon English is a good production but could have been something bigger, braver. It feels like it has had its wings clipped.