Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review: 'Excluded' at St Saviour's Church, 13th November 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Usually when a play makes you angry it's a bad thing. Not so with Excluded, which is performed by young people that the government doesn't give a shit about, who are demonised every single day in the media and who face an endless uphill battle against a class-stratified society designed to keep them at the bottom of the pile. 

Fortunately for them (and us in the audience), there are companies like Intermission Youth Theatre, who offer a ten-month programme for "vulnerable young people" to build confidence and teach performance skills.

Intermission must have done a good job, because the last thing I'd describe this cast as is vulnerable. Instead, they fizz with energy like an antacid dropped into a glass of water. Even before the show begins there's a face-off in the lobby of the church, with two characters having a rap battle in the midst of the crowd.

The meat of the show takes place upstairs. The conceit is: what if Shakespeare's most famous characters were teenagers about to take their GCSEs in a deprived local school. So you get Hamlet (Oliver Knight) rubbing shoulders with Caesar (Alexander 'X' Lobo Morena) and Lady Macbeth (Stevanie Matthews), while Romeo (Ricardo P Lloyd) and Juliet (Destiny Tola Onisile) canoodle in the back.

The overall effect (and I'm going to shamelessly steal this from cast member Jaspreet Bance) is like an Avengers: Endgame of Shakespeare. All your favourites are here, and the odd combinations of characters really pop on stage. Throughout the play, there's a loose central narrative of rivalries within the classroom, combined with side stories that get under the skin of particular characters. The whole thing is held together by Miss Portia (Rebecca Soper), who is wholly and sadly believable as a teacher losing faith in the education system she represents. 

The play is designed to give each actor a moment in the spotlight and damn do they each make the most of it. There isn't a weak link here, but I really enjoyed Oliver Knight's Hamlet (I would for sure watch him do the full play), Mark Akintimehin really nailed Shylock and Kashana Johnson's Iago was interestingly villainous without tipping over into caricature. 

But, as good as this all is, it can't help but make you mad as hell. The very existence of a company like Intermission is proof that the education system is simply not working. Why should talented young performers like this have to rely on charity and luck to realise their skills? This is something that can and should be done in schools and paid for out of taxation. But fat chance of that happening under the current shower of bastards. 

After the show concludes there's a very interesting Q&A with the cast. The most revealing question comes when a 12-year-old asks the cast if they have direct experience with knife crime. The responses come thick and fast: almost everybody either knows somebody who has been stabbed to death or committed murder themselves.

This is fucked. And don't buy the tabloid line that there is some inherent criminality or viciousness in these communities: these deaths are a direct result of government economic policy, with the effects of austerity neatly correlating with a rise in knife crime. So, y'know, next time someone tries defending the Tories just picture a bloody heap of dead kids who might otherwise be performing Shakespeare.

Ideally, I would have liked to be able to separate the politics from the performance and rate this dispassionately. This cast are not good because or in spite of their socioeconomic background, they're just good full stop. But when you leave the theatre after Excluded and almost immediately walk into the shadow of Harrods, where access to Father Christmas comes at £2000 a pop, you can't help but feel like something has gone very wrong in this country.

But hopefully not for much longer.

Excluded is at St Saviour's Church until 30 November 2019. Tickets here.

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