The Royal Court have returned to race issues a lot recently, and actress Rachel De-lahay's playwrighting debut The Westbridge
looks at a less documented form of racial tension: As an audience member succinctly put it during a Q&A that followed tonight's performance, "different kinds of black and brown people don't like each other." At its centre is a couple who on the surface seem to have transcended these problems: Half-white British, half-Pakistani Soriya (Chetna Pandya) has just moved her boyfriend into the flat she shares with white Georgina (Daisy Lewis,) the childhood friend who's more like a sister. He's Marcus (Fraser Ayres - insanely buff chest, as we find out when he turns up in a towel,) also mixed race (black/white) and despite having heard mutterings throughout their relationship, it's going strong. She starts to doubt herself though when rumours that a black boy raped a Pakistani girl at the titular nearby estate become national news and riots break out. De-lehay surrounds them with an extended cast that builds up a picture of a fraught community: Soriya's father Saghir (Ravi Aujla) whose welcome of Marcus isn't as warm as she'd like; her brother Ibi (Ray Panthaki) who went for the arranged marriage option rather than deal with his attraction to Georgina and how his community would react to it; prime suspect for the alleged rape Andre (Ryan Calais Cameron) and his mother Audrey (Jo Martin,) Saghir's neighbour who suspects her own son.
After a shaky start (I found the dialogue in the first few scenes came across a bit stilted) this really picks up into something that makes you engage with the characters, and De-lehay effectively uses smoke and mirrors to distract us in the issue of whether a rape actually occured, and if so whether or not Andre was rightly accused. The cast's strong performances help sell the multiple interlocking storylines, as does an innovative staging from designer Ultz, a cross between Earthquakes in London
and Pieces of Vincent
, which sees the audience in the middle of the auditorium on chairs all facing different directions, with raised stages surrounding them on three sides. It literally puts you in the middle of the action and is used effectively to make clean and quick scene changes (although these do feature strobing lights so be warned) but director Clint Dyer has also found inspiration in the unusual staging to make creative use of it, most memorably in a family dinner that takes place over the audience's heads. My only negative comments on the staging would be that backless stools might have been better for the audience as you could have spun around more comfortably, and that it's not an ideal fit to a show with such short scenes, as you do find yourself constantly trying to rearrange yourself. Overall though, once it gets going this is an impressive debut, creatively brought to life.The Westbridge
by Rachel De-lahay is booking until the 23rd of December at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.