The world preem of “The Westbridge” brings the Royal Court Theater’s production activity out of its tony Chelsea headquarters to the economically less privileged, ethnically mixed southeast London neighborhood of Peckham. Initiative, billed as Theater Local, establishes a context of cultures meeting and blending — or perhaps not — extended by the substance of Rachel De-lahay’s first play, in which a group of ethnically mixed characters face mounting tensions in and around a rough London housing estate. De-lahay writes with verve, but Clint Dyer’s production, which places auds literally in the middle of the action, puts too much strain on an already complex narrative.
Production is set on a deserted warehouse floor, with runways around the periphery where the action takes place and auds seated in chairs facing many different directions. This creates a suitably resonant pre-show atmosphere, as spectators are compelled to regard their neighbors. The plot concerns an alleged gang rape of a South Asian girl by young black men on the Westbridge estate. This kicks off several nights of unrest, and triggers disruption in the microcosm of play’s central relationship, between ambitious young Cambridge grad Soriya (Chetna Pandya), who is half-Pakistani and half white, and her enterprising, half-black, half-white boyfriend Marcus (Fraser Ayres). Adding complications is their white flatmate Georgina (Daisy Lewis), an out-of-work model who leans on Soriya financially and emotionally and is in love with Soriya’s brother Ibi (Ray Panthaki), whose is newly in an arranged marriage. Marcus is negotiating his own entanglements with Andre (Ryan Calais Cameron), a young black friend from the estate who may have been involved in the rape.
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Play feels most in its stride in its depiction of the central trio, for whom the navigation of cultural boundaries and movement between worlds is an everyday reality. They don’t live on the estate, but it functions as their metaphorical shadow, and the tensions seething there increasingly infect their lives as Soriya (rather implausibly, given how confidently she otherwise presents herself) takes to heart an elderly neighbor’s chiding that “Asian girls should be for Asian men.”
While the cast take on their roles with intensity and integrity, there is a disconnect between the naturalism required of the dialogue and the staging of whole scenes with characters speaking — or, more accurately, shouting — to each other from opposite sides of the room over aud members’ heads. Playing the action at various corners of the room, and interspersing domestic scenes with loud, frightening moments of anonymous violence creates an atmosphere of immersion and unease, but further weighs down the already laden plotting, making it hard to stay engaged in the eventual resolution of the rape story. Play will likely be better served by the intimacy of the Royal Court’s Space Upstairs, where it transfers later in November.
The lack of synergy between play and environment here parallels concerns about the Theater Local initiative: Does bringing off West End theater to neighborhoods less served by the funded arts positively address social inequities, or does it underline them? And is this promising young writer best served by a production that adds so many layers of attempted relevance that it nearly stifles the fresh voice emerging from it?