Brixton, like many of London’s communities, has seen significant changes over the last few decades. A diverse and multicultural area of the capital, mainly thanks to the arrival of the Windrush generation, it has been scarred in the past by inequality that led to rioting in the eighties and nineties. Archie Maddocks’ poignant comedy A Place for We, now playing at the Park Theatre in a co-production with The Talawa Theatre Company, explores the ever-changing face of London and those who inhabit it.
Shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize, A Place for We had its first performance as a staged reading around the same time as The Windrush Scandal broke. The play places great emphasis on the way of life that came to London and how it has shaped the city, but also examines tradition versus the need for change, and how views differ across the generations.
The story is very cleverly told through the inhabitants of a single building. We begin in the not too distant past, where this building is home to Nine Nights, a Trinidadian undertakers that specialises in the traditional form of Caribbean mourning. In the second act we are taken back to the 1970’s where a ‘traditonal English pub’ occupies the same four walls. In the short, final act the space is transformed into an enoteca (think hipster wine bar), bringing us up to date with the gentrification of Brixton.
That first act plays most on family ties, as father and son, Clarence and Keron James (Laurence Ubong Williams) battle over the future of the family business, the latter pushing for the change that will save them from bankruptcy. Clarence remains firmly convinced that things should remain as they were in his father’s day, but when we meet Elmorn and young Clarence (Harold Addo) back in the 70’s, it’s clear he saw the need to keep pace with changing times.
In one minute, A Place for We is the funniest play of the year, eliciting genuine belly laughs from the audience thanks to the quick witted writing and taught direction from Michael Buffong. In the next it’s heart wrenching, as characters deal with tremendous loss, both physical and emotional. At other times it’s deeply shocking, as racism and prejudice is laid bare across the multiple timelines. Maddocks’s writing is superbly astute, keeping the audience nimbly on their toes in this complex weaving of comedy, tragedy and bigotry.
If the writing encapsulates these three things, then David Webber as Clarence (and Elmorn) embodies them, this is a tour de force performance that captivates the audience at every turn. There isn’t a weak link in the cast; Blake Harrison easily sways from enlightened soul to bigoted and distraught landlord, before becoming an unwitting member of the middle classes.
Kirsty Oswald makes the biggest leap, from Tasha, a salt of the earth type in the first act to Esme, a potentially self-centred Gen Z. Joanna Horton, who appears only briefly in the first act as mild mannered and inoffensive Violet, steals the second act, unleashing and emotional torrent as Anna O’Driscoll.
A Place for We packs so much into its running time that by the end its easy to feel drained, yet somehow fulfilled. Archie Maddocks’ script is so thought provoking and expertly delivered that you feel like you’ve experienced the best and worst of the last five decades in just a couple of hours. But you also come away with a sense of just how much a place can mean to any of us, and how change, whether voluntary or enforced, can be truly devastating for some, while others grasp the opportunity with both hands.
A Place for We is at Park Theatre until 6th November 2021.