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Tuesday 11th November 2008
Theatre Review | ANY WHICH WAY | Only Connect Theatre

Only Connect do some important work, resettling ex-offenders and young people at risk of re-offending. They also produce plays, some of which go on to tour schools across the country. David Watson’s latest offering, Any Which Way, is one such play, a bold unsentimental examination of knife crime in the nation’s capital.

The staging is inspired. The audience enter a space akin to a community hall (actually a restored former Baptist church), which pumps out low-level grime music to the flickering back-projection of what looks like Peckham. In the darkness, the gangsters take their places, and seconds later the room explodes into violence.

Before our eyes Stefan (Kareem Dauda) attacks and kills his life-long best friend, sparking a police chase which sees him on the run, frantic and surrounded by helicopters, bidding goodbye to his girlfriend for the last time. If it sounds harrowing, it is, and it gets worse. In the morgue, the body of the murdered teenager – Akin – is presided over by another thug, a terrifying, animalistic man who relishes the feeling of power, explaining in no uncertain terms that a weak man is a dead man, and this is the way it should be.

Underpinning the violence are the stories of those caught in the crossfire, the parents, friends and girlfriends, who have no choice but to go on loving even those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. Akin’s mother Bayo describes arriving in London with her four-year-old son: "When you step off the plane, you see a greyness as far as the eye can see.” She wonders if this is the place for her young son, if this greyness, this harsh bleakness, might infect him in some way.

It is the mothers who provide the heart of the play, and it is for them for we feel most acutely. After all, these men are really boys – only a few short years from childhood – as a touching scene between Stefan and his now-dead friend demonstrates. Their banter is that of siblings, their gentle teasing of one another a stark reminder of what could have been.

Watson’s dialogue is both coarse and poetic. The barked exchanges between gangsters are like quick-fire bullets, while the lilting Caribbean accent of Bayo sounds luxurious by contrast. The actors handle the dialect skilfully, conveying much of its meaning through body language.

The atmosphere is all-encompassing. The promenade staging means the audience are thrown into the chaos, coming to should-to-shoulder with the knife wielding youths. It’s difficult to pinpoint where the thumping soundtrack is coming from, and the images – of grizzled, graffiti-ridden neighbourhoods – dominate the space. It’s a claustrophobic, intimidating experience, and one which leaves a resounding impression.

The cast are impeccable, and it’s difficult to believe that only two among them are professional. Perhaps this is what lends the play its sharp edge; it is written and performed by people who have been in direct contact with gang violence. While there have been several well-intentioned attempts to address this subject in recent years, few have felt as authentic.

© Harriet Davis 2008

  • Any Which Way plays at the Connect Theatre until 29 November 2008.

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