Waiting outside the theatre for this play to start, I bumped into a friend who I haven’t seen for some years. We both hail from the same town – Huddersfield in Yorkshire. “Have you been home recently?” my friend said. “No, what about you?” I said. “I went back to Yorkshire to see my mum a few months ago. I want her to move, but she won’t - the area’s terrible now. I won’t go out after 8 pm when I’m there”. My friend is in his late 30s, highly intelligent and articulate, successful, and not a little streetwise. He also happens to be black. Our conversation was a chilling harbinger of the events we were about to witness on stage.
‘Elmina’s Kitchen’ is the name of the café in Hackney in which this play is set. It’s run by Deli (played by the author of the piece, Kwame Kwei-Armah). He’s assisted, extremely reluctantly, by his 19 year-old son Ashley (Michael Obiora) who’s more interested in benefiting from the financial fruits of the local gangland underworld than in delivering take-aways for his father or attending college. But Deli, an ex-boxer and ex-offender, is determined to make an honest living and keep his son on the ‘straight and narrow’. But it’s pretty clear from the start that it’s a losing battle.
Using the café as his office, and thereby offering free protection to Deli and his business, Digger (brilliantly played by Shaun Parkes) buys and sells debts. He’s terrifyingly scary, the last person you’d want to ‘pay you a visit’.
To the naïve, easily influenced Ashley, there’s a clear choice in the café – he increasingly sees his father as weak, and is thus drawn to Digger and his lucrative, materialistic lifestyle, along with the violence that underpins it. At first, Digger refuses to allow Ashley into his world. But things change as the relationship between Deli and Digger deteriorates, and Ashley becomes a pawn in a deadly game that climaxes in shockingly horrific consequences that stunned the appreciative and attentive audience.
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s carefully balanced and well-crafted script describes an immensely disquieting and unnerving situation. It’s a bleak play because no solutions are proposed, and none present themselves as being feasible, effective or practical. The attraction of easy money, and the lure of material possessions and monetary wealth, negates attempts to persuade some of our young citizens that an honest living is one that can be attractive or rewarding. It’s more poignant because it’s a glimpse into the frightening reality that many people endure daily – in a very real sense, the play is more documentary than fiction. And more alarming still, is the knowledge that we’re all responsible.
Although depressing in many respects, it’s not total despair in ‘Elmina’s Kitchen’. Kwai-Armah skilfully weaves into the play much of what is rich about black culture. A great sense of humour permeates almost every scene, and is highlighted with some nice one-liners. For example, Deli’s father (played by Don Warrington) says to the vivacious cook at the café “You look good and I look great”, and subtly observes about his son’s business departure into fast food - “West Indian fast food is a contradiction”. The singing by the whole cast during the funeral scene at the beginning of the second act, was simple but aptly melancholic echoing the great genres of black music. And the live music from Juldeh Camara and Atongo ZimabAnd - played before the play started and during scene changes - was superb.
Casting the author in the lead role was a bold step. But it pays off in a moving portrayal of a man desperate to keep his integrity and self-respect in the almost bizarre situation that threatens to overwhelm and consume him and his son. All the other performances are strong, believable characterisations built on confident and subtle direction.
There was a strong and emotionally charged reception from the audience at the end of the performance. But in many ways ‘Elmina’s Kitchen’ is being performed to the wrong audience – it ought to be doing the rounds of schools and youth clubs, or even performed in the streets as well. But as an ex-teacher, I doubt even that would have any immediate impact on the intractable problems the play describes, because the causes run very deep. And attempts to promote solutions will need vision, humanity and compassion as well as some radical re-thinking about the direction our whole society is taking. It’s hard not to be pessimistic.
Extremely shocking and unnerving, Elmina’s Kitchen’ is nevertheless highly recommended.
What other critics had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Elmina's Kitchen is a compelling, disjointed piece..." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Kwei-Armah's lively, dialogue-rich play eventually lapses into melodrama."CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "It's a flawed work, but one with a huge heart, beginning as an often broad comedy before swerving off into altogether darker territory. "BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Elmina’s Kitchen involves social problems which, if unacknowledged and unchallenged, will cause pain and hatred far beyond Murder Mile. All credit to Kwei-Armah for confronting them in so funny, poignant and wise a way."