Writer Levi David Addai, director Dawn Walton and actors Ashley Walters and Nathaniel Martello-White in discussion with the Royal Court’s Diversity Associate, Ola A...… Read more
Oxford Street: where the streets are paved with gold, if you just know where to look.
At Total Sports, security guard Kofi and his workmates are making sure everything runs smoothly, easing the daily grind with plenty of jokes and chat about the future. Young or old, they all want more from life. The only difference is how they’ll go about getting it.
This boisterous and comic new play from Levi David Addai ( 93.2FM & House of Agnes ) looks beyond the glossy facade of the high street at the stories and ambitions of the workers within.
Oxford Street received its first performance reading as part of Tiata Fahodzi’s annual new writing initiative Tiata Delights at Soho Theatre in 2007.
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Dates in May
|Fri 2 May 2008||12:00am||Jerwood Theatre Upstairs|
Sold out Performances
£15. Mondays all seats £10 Concs £10
4 stars Sam Marlowe, The Times, Monday 12th May
All the tawdry dazzle of London’s most famous shopping district glitters in the third play by the sharp-eyed young talent Levi David Addai. Dawn Walton’s exuberant production, cleverly designed by Soutra Gilmour, thrusts the audience into a busy shop in the run-up to Christmas. Perched among the actors on stools or plastic chairs, we watch as Addai and Walton strip away retail’s seductive illusion of bounteous luxury, exposing the irony of its maintenance by underpaid workers with dreams of their own.
Addai laces the concept with the pungent flavours of capital life, from the wages gap to the debt mountain to racial, religious and cultural diversity. He also returns to themes familiar from previous work of edgy South London street life, family and masculine identity. The results are short on structure, but play and production fizz with passion and authenticity, keeping the viewer’s nose pressed up against the gleaming plate-glass of this window onto urban existence.
Kofi is university educated but has drifted into his part-time loss prevention officer job at Total Sports. Darrell, his former schoolmate ostensibly looking for temporary work to boost his festive finances, has gang connections and two children with different baby mamas. Their full-time security colleagues, the bad-tempered Pole Alek and fatherly Ghanaian Emmanuel, assume a seniority in the store’s hierarchy beneath the white Essex girl Steph, the manager who like so many workplace Little Napoleons, relishes her petty power, but secretly longs to be liked.
Out on the shop floor, its down to Loraina, a Brazilian-born performing-arts student, and Husnad, an Asian prospective economics undergraduate, to deal with demanding customers, who regardless of income, all share an overweening sense of entitlement. With the arrival of two light-fingered boys who excuse their bad behaviour with overblown accounts of hard times in the hood, Addai punctures glamorised ghetto mythology with delicious wit. His concern about youth violence and for his characters in particular the conflicted, rudderless Kofi is evident, but so, too, is a refreshing and irrepressible faith in humanity.
His optimism is infectious, and the acting, from a cast led by Nathanial Martello-White as Kofi and former So Solid Crew member Ashley Walters as Darrell, is terrific. This is a joyous hymn to our flawed, fabulous city.
Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph, Monday 12th May
Mention “Oxford Street” to a politician or a journalist and you’ll tend to hear about a problem in need of a solution: gridlocked traffic, crowded pavements, dismayingly tacky shops. To a certain, astute kind of playwright, though, central London’s far from golden mile is rammed with rich dramatic possibilities. It’s not a mess that demands clearing up, it’s a melting pot of unremarked-upon lives that requires – and repays – closer scrutiny.
As fresh as newly mown grass, and sometimes so funny you wonder whether a better title wouldn’t be Are You Being Served, Innit?, Levi David Addai’s play goes behind the scenes at one of those flagship stores that’s gradually sinking beneath the waves of endless discounts, cost-cutting and low staff morale.
In “Total Sports”, in the fevered run-up to Christmas, assistant shop manager Stephanie is having trouble motivating her young multi-racial store assistants to focus on the job at hand; whenever her back is turned, the idle chat – street-smart and slang-filled – kicks off.
At first, you think Addai’s main interest lies in showing the values of different ethnic communities coming into conflict. The odd man out in the store’s security division is a diligent, late-twentysomething Pole called Alek (a wonderfully deadpan Kristian Kiehling), who casually risks inflaming tensions by offering sardonic criticisms of his co-workers: If you teenagers stop causing trouble, the police will leave you alone, he suggests to his young black counterpart Kofi – blithely brandishing a copy of the Daily Mail.
The real focus of the evening, though, is the way Kofi (played with quiet desperation by Nathanial Martello-White) is thwarted in his desire to better himself by his own brethren. A sly, shifty black temp called Darrell has criminal designs on the store’s floggable merchandise and knows Kofi from school days in Lewisham. The call of local loyalties is one thing; the threat of violence quite another.
Dawn Walton’s superbly acted production plants the audience in the thick of things on stunted plastic seats. All very exhilarating when the set-up music is pumping, but when aggressive shoplifters move into the frame, or Ashley Walter’s sour-faced Darrell turns nasty, the feeling of having nowhere to run is powerfully brought home.
After delivering a lorry-load of laughs, the piece, which bristles throughout with urban authenticity, abruptly sharpens into a bleak portrait of lonely vulnerability as Kofi’s life, which appeared to be back on track, hits a grim dead-end.
Unlike his trapped characters, though, Addai is clearly going places.
Siobhan Murphy, Friday 9th May
Metro4 stars The plot to Levi David Addai’s latest play is simple enough – a young man placed in a horrible predicament by peer pressure – and certainly feels like a topic that has been explored thoroughly before. What makes Oxford Street a joy is director Dawn Walton’s ferociously funny production. Designer Soutra Gilmour has transformed the Royal Court’s small upstairs theatre into a surprisingly realistic sportswear shop, where the audience perch on plastic stools amidst boxes of trainers and rails of T-shirts.
The set switches around you, from shop floor to staff areas, as Addai weaves the story of security guard Kofi (Nathanial Martello-White) and his workmates at Oxford Street’s Total Sports. The Christmas rush has started and, amid the chaos, the staff dream of making it and escaping the daily grind. Kofis cosy existence is upset, however, when old acquaintance Darrell (Ashley Walters) arrives, looking to get a lot more out of Total Sports than £6.50 an hour.
Walton never slackens the pace for this sharply observed play, spot-on with its depiction of London’s multicultural mix, and her excellent cast put bite into Addai’s beautifully crafted dialogue. At the play’s centre, Walters bristles with malign energy and Martello-White is thoroughly believable as Kofi, visibly struggling to understand how his options flipped so suddenly.
4 stars Nicholas De Jongh, Evening Standard, Thursday 8th May
You might think a play that lurks behind the scenes of an Oxford Street sportswear store, to eavesdrop on security and sales staff labouring in the Christmas rush, would be no great laughing matter. Yet while Levi David Addai’s play remains obstinately plot-lite, its undercurrents of comedy and pathos keep the 85-minute evening buoyant.
For Addai’s mainly young characters at the Total Sports store, not unlike those relentless hopers and wistful dreamers in Chekhov or Tennessee Williams, aspire to make something of their lives and escape. They want more than regimented drudgery at just over £6 per hour will ever give them.
“Hi, believe I can fly. Spread my wings – fly away”, ridiculously sings Emmanuel, the 53-year-old Ghanaian loss prevention manager, who secretly reads up on business management as if he could ever get into it. The only one taking his job half-seriously is Alek, brought to lovely comic life by Kristian Kiehling, all wreathed in officiousness, pedantry and impassive gloom as the young, Polish security guy, immersed in the Daily Mail.
Here, then, is one of those theatrical snap-shots of London today, of its hustled, multi-cultural servant-class, who cater to a nation of shopping addicts. A single plot-line is traced through the experience of Nathanial Martello-White’s dejected Kofi, a young black Londoner who achieved a University degree and wants to hack his way into journalism but somehow remains trapped at Total Sports.
The arrival of old schoolmate, Darrell Obi-Anderson, whom Ashley Walter’s endows with an air of smiling, nonchalant menace, proves dangerous. Not only does Darrell threaten Kofi’s fragile romance with Preeya Kalidas’s theatre-mad Loraina but the newcomer also forces him to choose between turning a blind eye to criminality or exposing it.
In the cruel, believable resolution Kofi emerges as victim and fall-guy, aware that he dare not tell the truth. “Be a winner, not a sinner”, an Oxford Street pamphleteer urges him as he leaves. It is surely Addai’s intention to suggest that in the service industry today the shameless, artful sinner wins out.
Dawn Walton’s environmental production, fortified by Soutra Gilmour’s neat design, converts the theatre into a sports shop. The audience sits on stools. Narrow vertical and horizontal playing areas bisect the square auditorium. It all feels authentic. If only Addai had probed more deeply, Oxford Street would be a more exciting theatrical thoroughfare.
- Writer Levi David Addai, director Dawn Walton and actors Ashley Walters and Nathaniel Martello-White in discussion with the Royal Court’s Diversity Associate, Ola Animashawun. Download this Podcast