Review: The Frontline by Ché Walker at Shakespeare's Globe

By Zoe Craig Last edited 108 months ago
Review: The Frontline by Ché Walker at Shakespeare's Globe
1007_frontline_landscape.jpg

Ché Walker wrote The Frontline while he was sitting backstage during last year's Othello at Shakespeare's Globe.

As an actor in a minor role, Ché was lucky enough to have a two-and-a-half hour break each evening. So he sat in the Globe's attic in his doublet and hose with the Moor of Venice's Shakespearean rhythms floating through the floorboards while he penned a piece about Camden's lowlife.

It's an incongruous image. But surely incongruity is something the Globe, with its brightly clad, element-battered tourists lapping up medieval poetry, its bitterly uncomfortable expensive seats, this newly built, ancient "wooden O" nestled alongside Tate Modern, thrives on.

With Ché Walker's new play, The Frontline, these inconsistencies are pushed even harder.

This is a play, we're told, about London's "desperate invisibles". Junkies, yoofs, refugees, tramps, lap-dancers, gangsters; a near-Dickensian range of more than 20 characters (with no interference from middleclass toffs or the really rich) shimmy along to a surprising opening chorus number, accompanied by a jazzy trombone, piano and percussion trio. And that's just the start.

We meet Marcus (Mo Sesay), a literature-loving bouncer; Beth (Golda Rosheuvel) is a struggling reformed junkie turned religious fanatic. There's Erkenwald, a philosophising Glaswegian hotdog seller, played by John Stahl and a hilariously egomaniacal actor called Mordechai Thurrock (a dream role for Trystan Gravelle).

Nothing inconsistent in this last persona, you might think. Until he storms on stage to make another career-launching phone call wearing just his overcoat and pants.

1007_fronline_portrait.jpg

Then there's the youth: disenfranchised drug pushers, looking for a fight. Erkenwald warns us that a young gang member will die before the end of the show; it's depressingly hard to imagine a play about London's streets without such an incident.

But alongside the tragedy, there are plenty of laughs. However, this is a play riddled with such bathos, it's sometimes tricky to know whether to laugh or cry.

Long after the fantastically funny 16-year-old Babydoll (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) has blackmailed money out of her mother, there remains an uneasy feeling about all the laughter she's won from us. This is black comedy at its finest.

A truly gifted, well-cast ensemble gives the play its edge, carrying some weaker moments. The pre-interval rap, "The war on drugs is just a war on blacks" is not great. But other sublime linguistic turns more than make up for it.

A myriad of references (cultural, literary, geo-political, dramatic, evolutionary, religious, gastronomic, racial) are flung about the Globe's stage with the same velocity as the insults, with truly disorientating results. More than 2000 years of civilisation flow through the play; from the woolly mammoth preserved in London clay, to the sources of Christianity, through the great racial conflicts of the world, to the development of Marmite.

The latter, café owner Mahmoud cites as the one gift the British have given to civilisation. "There's no self pity in the taste of Marmite," he surmises.

It's a play that asks more questions than it answers. There's worryingly little impact following the murder, and other poignant moments have only a fleeting impact before floating away like Banksy's balloon in the backdrop.

Ultimately though, The Frontline is witty enough to be thoroughly entertaining above the questions it raises.

Go for the impeccable acting, Ché Walker's incredible flair for linguistics and some of the subtlest nods to stereotyped characterisations you'll see on stage. The Globe's certainly never seen anything like this before: make sure you do.

Images show Beru Tessema (Miruts) challenging Kurt Egyiawan (Salim), and Ashley Rolfe as Elliot. Photos by Manuel Harlan.

The Frontline is at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, booking until 17 August. For more information, see

www.shakespeares-globe.org.

Last Updated 10 July 2008