Hailed by the Guardian (no less) as “one of the most fertile crucibles of new writing”, it made perfect sense for two plays that address harsh, yet crucial social issues set before the backdrop of the North East of England to be performed here. Both stories of coming of age, Braids, written by Olivia Hannah, tackles the Black Northern working-class experience, whilst Tamsin Daisy-Rees’ Cheer Up Slug traces the tumultuous relationship between two friends during that awkward stage of being almost-adult but not quite - the point where the Duke of Edinburgh award could seemingly make all the difference. Performed side by side with an interval of 20 minutes, the plays offer a holistic view of relationships and their turmoils that are not only universal, but overwhelmingly particular to those of us who call the North East our home.
Olivia Hannah’s debut play, Braids, offers something that the north-east has rarely seen before: the portrayal of the Black Northern working-class experience. It feels refreshing (and well overdue) to hear a Geordie accent from a Black actor on stage. The play follows the friendship of two teenage girls, Jasmine and Abeni, portrayed by Rochelle Goldie and Xsara-Sheneille Pryce, who together explore their experience of under-representation, identity, and their relationship with the place that they live. Jasmine is from Durham, the daughter of a white mother and a distant black father, and having spent all of her life living in an almost entirely white society, she knows very little about her own cultural heritage as a young Black Woman.
Enter Abeni, from the more culturally diverse Manchester, and all of a sudden the impacts of under-representation in Durham are cast in bright light. Jasmine feels torn between her relationship with the place she calls home, and her new found identity under the enlightenment of Abeni - ‘the Ambassador of Blackness’ she sarcastically dubs herself. Goldie and Pryce’s depictions of their characters are golden, every word they uttered believable and evocative of such a true friendship. Set on a black glossy stage with few props - save for some bright colourful wigs that form a shop in the opening scene - Anna Orton’s set design really allows for the text’s words to ring loud and clear. The play, under the directorship of Kemi-Bo Jacobs, beautifully challenges the stereotypes and definitions that are too quickly assigned to young Black women and offers a restoring chance to watch a young woman wrestle with - and succeed in finding - her own identity. (★★★★)
Ice Cream consumed, the second half of this double-bill offers us Cheer Up Slug, written by Newcastle graduate and current PhD student, Tamsin Daisy Rees. Atop a piece of grass situated centre-stage and pit of mud just below it, we meet best friends Bean (Jackie Edwards) and Will (David Fallon) who are undertaking their Duke of Edinburgh award expedition somewhere in the countryside around Durham. Much like Jasmine of Braids, Will discusses his relationship with the city of Durham and the students who live there - feeling unwelcome in his own birthplace by self-righteous, posh students who have no respect for the traditions of the mining town. He feels pressure from his mum to stay close to home, but the idea of studying with people who have such little respect for his own identity and heritage disgusts him. The play moves from gentle, friendly banter to more troubling themes when we learn that Bean’s boyfriend won’t be joining them to make the minimum of three in a team they need to achieve their award. The best friend that Bean has such faith in, turns out not to be as trustworthy as she originally thought. Edwards and Fallon master the fine line between the tragic and the comic, expressing superbly the struggle of grasping for an identity in a fast-paced adolescent world of insecurity and fragility. Yet, Edwards' fast, sharp and witty depiction of Bean is the highlight of this piece - every word uttered is truly believable. (★★★★)
Playscripts are available from Live Theatre or from Meuthen Drama directly.