A play about a 14-year-old from East London who’s just got out of care and back with his dysfunctional family will, you might safely predict, have plenty of shocks, and be staged in a confrontational, in-your-face manner. And that is the case with Afterbirth, which opened tonight at the Arcola Theatre.
The play begins with the graphic description by a group of youths of a video of a fatal rape of a senior citizen on the estate who was being punished for “grassing up” one of its criminal families, then Val, Baz’s shatteringly dysfunctional mother, walks around on stage for several minutes “with her tits out”, as her older son Morris puts it, parading in front of him and a visiting mate. Then there’s full-frontal nudity from the middle-aged paedophile character(at least if you’re sitting in the seats on the left as you enter the theatre – you’ve been warned), as he gets out of bed after a night with Baz, the 14-year-old. (The 16-plus ticket rating is fair enough.)
This first full-length drama by Dave Florez, is, however, considerably cleverer and more thought-out than those “shock-jock” scenes might suggest. They are only softening up the audience for the real earthquakes to come; most of which happen in their minds, rather than graphically on the stage in front of them. Yet the thought, the fear, that they might lingers.
The play begins as Baz (David Judge) returns home, to his glue-sniffing mates and the paedophile Ken (Paul Moriarty), who, it emerges, is the closest thing to a parent-figure or older brother that Baz has ever known. The subtlety of this relationship hints at the complexities to follow, although, for reasons I cannot reveal without giving away too much of the plot, you’re left in no moral doubt about the ultimately thoroughly exploitative and vile nature of the relationship.
Baz then sits down in front of the television with the chain-smoking Val (Clara Salaman), but the closest she can imagine to a motherly gesture is the jerky, uncomfortable offer to take away his drink can. In the background is Baz’s new (half)-brother, Alan, in whom the boy has invested all of his fervent homes for family and stability. (An interesting take on the more usual model of female teen pregnancy.)
We gradually meet more of the thoroughly dysfunctional family: Morris, the football lout, and Madonna, the drug-addicted prostitute sister, who’s trapped in messy sort-of-snout but mostly sexual relationship with a sleazy policeman (Chris Chilton). This is the aspect of the play – with its all-too-Billish cliches, that works least well. But general, Florez is successful in avoiding the obvious council estate plot lines; I was particularly impressed that the social worker who appears at the end is not a figure of fun or loathing, just a man of compassion trapped in a potentially explosive scenario. And we’re not just presented with horrors flat out, some unfold subtly, with the Morris-Val scene, for example, suddenly appearing in a new light after later revelations in the play.
There’s plenty of humour, situational, slapstick and verbal, most of which is built into the plot in a sophisticated matter – there’s little slapstick for the sake of it. (Even the nappy smell jokes, which start to get a little wearing – do in the end have more point to them than might seem possible.)
At the peak is the turning point scene with Karim (Kal Aise), Val’s latest boyfriend and the presumed father of Alan. It starts out roaringly funny, then turns into something deeply dark. As is the play from this point on.
This is a truly fine first play – we can certainly hope to see more of Florez – and a well-staged production by the director Deborah Paige that makes full use of the Arcola’s star-shaped space. David Judge does a fine job of portraying Baz’s real, if desperate, affection for the baby Alan, although is physically less than convincing as a 14-year-old – a tough ask for any adult actor. The production also sees a particularly fine performance from Clara Salaman, who manages to syympathetically play a drunken, drugged-up, hopeless mother without descending into slapstick farce.
It is hard to see this play achieving the “perfect” result for any fringe production in transferring to the West End – the subject matter and a certain rawness militate against it – but it is a production that certainly deserves to be well patronised at the Arcola.
For visitors to London, and those who don’t know the area, I should perhaps add that as with most fringe theatre, this isn’t in the best part of town. This doesn’t mean you need to be paranoid, but flashing wads of cash or expensive mobiles on the street would probably not be a good idea. But you can dine well, and astonishingly cheaply by London standards, in the many Turkish restaurants that line Dalston High Street.