REVIEW: “Little Baby Jesus” at Orange Tree Theatre

“We don’t grow up on our birthdays, it’s on random experiences like this one” observes Rugrat in ARINZÉ KENE‘s newly revived and reinvigorated play from 2011. Little Baby Jesus captures the bittersweet moments when he and his contemporaries Kehinde and Joanne make a transition from kids to young adults.

In some ways it is a shame. This three strong cast is so effective at embodying the cheek, doubt and clatter of being inner-London schoolkids that the audience does not want them to change. We are enjoying the humour and chaos from the safe remove of our seats around the stage without the burden of personal responsibility.

Perceived absence of responsibility is the chief reason so many adults look back with fond nostalgia on being of school age – but it is nonsense. Collectively we mis-remember. Life is ruthless at that age. Competitive, demanding and marinated in helpless doubt.

This is what Kene’s play taps into particularly well. Joanne is gradually becoming the parent as her mother’s mental health deteriorates. Kehinde has sex on the brain but knows that he and life are more than that. Rugrat struggles for acceptance and is drawn to notions of gang life. Look these people in the face and tell them these are the best days of their lives.

The set by TARA USHER is beautiful in its simplicity. A circle of rubberised cinders on the floor conjures up playground parks, and suspended high above it a black hoop trimmed with light. The cast use it like an Echo Dot, changing scene, music or mood with practised, offhand gestures.

The audience is controlled just as easily, part of director TRISTAN FYNN-AIDUENU’s beautiful opening-out of this play. There is so much eye contact and other performed interaction between the characters and the audience but this has been skilfully worked out and controlled. No demands are made of us to ‘join in’ – panto season is near if you crave that kind of thing. Instead this is a way of engaging and including us in stories and an authentic world that Kene has constructed with deceptive skill.

Stories of violence, betrayal, attraction, rejection and despair. Stories of school trips that dip into horror. Stories of flirtations in laundrettes that can make the spirits soar or lead to plain abuse. Stories of how racism can be handed down through the generations like the disease it is. Stories of finding love. As the individual narratives of Joanne, Rugrat and Kehinde coalesce and intersect, these stories are spun between them like magical threads. They are populated by so many vividly drawn characters. Bullies, teachers, oddballs, relations and many more all brought to life by this phenomenally gifted trio of performers.

KHAI SHAW inhabits Rugrat from the tips of his colour-dipped braids to the outsized trainers that scream his defiance of school uniform. His facial and physical clowning are exemplary but Shaw makes it clear that there is a lot going on beneath it. A lot of this is the desperation to fit in, always a more enticing option than finding yourself. As a carpet-rescuing stranger Shaw radiates sweetness. As a dead-eyed gangster wannabe he instils terror in the gut.

Thoughtful and old before his time, Kehinde defies so many expectations of teenage boys. The trials he faces are canyon deep and ANYEBE GODWIN can express all of this with one sideways look. He radiates stillness even when moving. His face is kept in a pained or lugubrious mask for much of the time but somehow the character’s deepest feelings bleed through. The reaction to one devastating loss is as astonishing a piece of acting as you will see all year. It hurts to witness it.

Joanne is played by the multi-talented RACHEL NWOKORO in a blaze of sorrowful vulnerability and furious defiance. All of this is patinated with a flirtatious, grinning shell. Nwokoro aces expressive comedy. The layers build up in a performance that grips so tightly it draws blood.

Put these three actors together with DK FASHOLA’s perfect choreography and the cumulative effect is stunning. They chorus, spark, complement and riff. Their energy, the energy of the entire production, is phenomenal. These keen and tender individual stories form such an effective whole, one that that feels as though it could be different every night. The music choices seal the deal.

At the core of all this snapping energy is something endlessly loving. Every word Arinzé Kene has written matters, not only in meaning but in use, sense and sound. His teenagers speak their true language, not the smoothed-out youthspeak yesterday’s theatre would have put in their mouths. Kids in the audience see themselves, while the older contingent find themselves remembering. Vocabulary and specifics may change over time but the emotional landscape endures. Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu has added further love to all of this and created an experience that feels thrillingly fresh, truthful and unique.

Written by: Arinzé Kene

Directed by: Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu

Anyebe Godwin (Kehinde)

Rachel Nwokoro (Joanne)

Khai Shaw (Rugrat)

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