Rachel De-lahay’s first play, The Westbridge, is on at the Bussey Building in Peckham. I took myself off for there for my first solo trip to the theatre, driven partly by my curiosity about the imposing old Bussey building, which I pass everyday on the train, and my wish to see one of the plays being put on by Theatre Local, the Royal Court’s theatre-for-people-that-don’t-do-theatre offshoot. I do do theatre, but it’s always nice having quality on one’s doorstep. So, having missed Debbie Tucker Green’s truth and reconciliation (her play random, which Theatre Local showed last year, was one of my favourites of 2010), I went to see this one instead.
I thought it’d be like going to the cinema on my own (which I am perfectly happy to do) but unlike solo cinema jaunts, going to the theatre lone seemed somewhat antisocial, like I was breaking some unwritten code of theatre-going: ‘Thou shalt invite friends to any act conducted upon a stage’. Maybe it was the pre-play drinks on my own – just me, my Tyrells and my tea – or perhaps it was being surrounded by the general bonhomie of various groups of friends before the play started; I tried to style it out, look nonchalant and happy, but as I was clutching my tea like it was some kind of comforter, I’d say I only around 70% pulled it off. Oh wellz.
I really liked the set up, though it rather emphasised my alone-ness. Audience members sit in the middle of the room, on chairs placed at right angles to each other, rather than rows. The stage runs along the perimeter of the room, with the action veering from stage to stage, each scene change announced with flashes of neon lighting and accompanied by a flurry of swivelling necks. I don’t know if this will be the same when it moves to the Royal Court, but it works well and I hope they retain it.
Anyway, onto the business of the play. [SPOILER ALERT -I'm skimming over details but if you're going to see it and want to remain completely surprised then maybe skip the next paragraph]. Ostensibly, it goes something like this: there are riots happening on The Westbridge (a large estate in Battersea). Reports say an asian girl was attacked, possibly raped by some black boys. Racial tensions escalate, and in the midst of this our main characters – a mixed race couple about to move in on the estate, together with their posh friend, one of the accused black boys and his troubled mother, the asian family next door – are trying to go about their lives. I’m missing out quite a lot of the detail because I don’t want to give it away, but suffice it to say, Things (begin to) Fall Apart.
Relationships begin to fracture under the stress of underlying racial tensions – the mixed race couple are pulled up short by the riot-induced realisation that not everybody is as colour-blind as they are; side-eyed glances and disparaging remarks make that clear. The mother of the accused, enraged by shame, takes it out on her understanding neighbour; the same neighbour who cannot stand his (asian) daughter’s mixed race boyfriend. And the accused boy, the shadowy central character, stands in judgement of them all.
Familiar themes of belonging, identity, relationship breakdown and stereotyping, abound. The dialogue is fast-paced, colourful, real (and reminded me of how much I love the language and the lyricism of slang) and the acting is great (Eastenders fans will recognise old character Ronny, who plays Ibi here), but the relationship breakdown of the couple feels like it hinges on too little, drama for drama’s sake, a little ‘everything’s fucked so lets have a row.’ Perhaps that’s the point – if you’re in relationships with people from different backgrounds (and I guess this applies to all close relationships not just romantic ones), glossing over your differences, saying you believe in colour/culture-blindness and simply hoping for the best is naivete of the highest order. You can do it, but when circumstances conspire and force you to confront those differences, it’ll probably a lot more painful than if you’d addressed them on your own terms. Maybe that was the point. In any case, it made me think, and I always take that as a good sign. Go see it.
The Westbridge is on at the Bussey Building until 19th November, and then will run at the Royal Court theatre until 23 December.