Pros: The cast were all convincing in their roles and maintained the attitude of their characters over unsteady scene changes.
Cons: The scene changes were at times exasperatingly long and noisy. Clocking up the time it took to turn the set over for each new scene might constitute a good half hour of the play.
The Lion & Unicorn Theatre sits neatly in a quiet residential area off Kentish Town Road; if you know what a map is, and if you’ve ever used the internet or a smartphone then you shouldn’t have trouble finding it. Nevertheless for some bizarre reason I got off the tube too early (my glasses changed the way the words looked…), but managed to walk from Camden without any mishap befalling me, and most of the people I passed had normal unthreatening hairstyles. Approaching the venue in the dark of the evening I was struck by how well behaved, inviting and comfortable it looked. Disappointingly I couldn’t identify any disabled access to the theatre space upstairs; a limitation of the pub-theatre combination.
The play opened (slightly late) with our young protagonist, the aspiring actress Shareen, reading aloud the lines of her dream role – Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. The motif of the strong and powerful ‘other’ woman was repeated throughout the course of the evening and served its purpose well as an indicator for both Shareen’s character and theatrical ambitions as a black actress. As the story developed we encountered various barriers separating Shareen from her goal: the lack of casting calls and the ill-fitting Caucasian profile; the poorly paid waitress work that dries up; the landlady harassing her for overdue rent; and the sleazy music video producer that objectifies and uses her. Somewhat predictably Shareen ends up in a strip club dancing for money, and her landlady gets a new tenant.
Unfortunately the thematic drive of the production – race and gender in performance – was overwhelmed by unreasonably long and at times clattering set changes. The lights were dimmed in an attempt to conceal the stage hands’ movements, but with frames caught in canopies, people bumping into each other, and men rearranging furniture like it was moving day, the drawn-out shifting of props and furniture became positively farcical – it was like watching back to back episodes of Changing Rooms without the light relief of Carol Smiley.
Maybe the director or the playwright were too ambitious with the set design; maybe the venue and the text are unsuited; either way it felt a bit like a tech rehearsal and it’s a shame a compromise between space and language wasn’t reached – why not simply project the changing backdrops onto a screen? Rather irksomely from where I was sitting I couldn’t see all the action of the play itself, so on that score again the actors were let down by a pretty practical oversight. I reached the end of my tether when during one set change a dozen or so bottles were dropped onto the floor – I knew at that moment that I would have to sit in the dark and watch as a silhouette painstakingly picked each one up, the duration of which outlasted the scene itself. The scenes were not long enough to sustain such frequent, albeit effective, set designs, however I’m sure this will become more fluid each night of the run.
Notwithstanding the clunky renovations the production was well cast. Shareen was especially natural and her performance had great credibility to it; punctuating the narrative with readings of Cleopatra’s verse allowed us to hear and see the character’s growth as an actress. Most importantly however, this play made me think: over the last twelve months how many female black actresses have I seen on stage… zero (utterly subjective example). Given that 95% of the productions I’ve seen this year have been in the West End/Central London, I think Cobra certainly gives us all food for thought.
Author and Director: Charis Agbonlator
Booking Until: 26th October 2013.
Box Office: 08444 771 000
Booking Link: http://www.lionandunicorntheatre.com/