Estate Walls by Arinze Kene | London Theatre Review

All right, so let me get a little confession out of the way. A bit of me groaned inwardly when I heard that the Oval House Theatre was staging Estate Walls. ‘Yet another dramatic piece about disadvantaged youth set in inner city London?’ I wondered. We’d heard and seen it all before… or so I thought.

Thankfully, Arinze Kene’s witty and intelligent script, sympathetically directed by Che Walker proves that there’s still scope for discussion of what appears to be a hackneyed (yes, pun intended) subject.

Set in Pembury Estate, Hackney Estate Walls is the tale of three close friends; Obi (Daniel Norford), Myles (Ricci McLeod) and Cain (Daniel Green) who live, love, jest and sometimes get up to no good, in the neighbourhood.

Cain is fresh out of prison and looking to get revenge against the man he believes informed on him. Myles is a ladies man with the gift of the gab and no self-control.

Obi relents of his past misdemeanours and hopes for a fresh start at University studying nautical engineering. Very much in touch with his sensitive, creative side Obi writes his thoughts in a journal-cum-book-of-poetry. His plans for self-improvement run into complications when his two friends, rather than show support, try to pressure him into raising some hell.

There’s also the small problem of Obi being secretly enamoured with Chelsea (Sophie Benjamin), Cain’s on-and-off girlfriend. His insistence on documenting this incipient romance in his poetry diary can only lead to trouble.

Kene’s script deftly captures and magnifies the poetry of everyday conversation on an Estate. Behind the ‘slanguage’ that flies back and forth between the three friends, there’s a sophistication that is quite arresting. The characters of Estate Walls are well developed; refreshingly, Kene avoids the kind of cartoonish representations and clichés that tend to undermine the genre. The down-at-heel opulence of James Cotterill’s stage design perfectly complements the action, demonstrating a real commitment to authentic Estate aesthetic. Heck, even the play’s soundtrack is pretty damn good.

Che Walker nurtures some thoroughly believable performances from the actors. Ricci McLeod’s highly charismatic portrayal of Myles makes it very difficult to imagine any one else in the role. Daniel Green is a revelation as Cain, who oscillates between cool-and-quiet Estate authority and ticking time bomb; his penetrating, Meerkat-like eyes make him all the more intense. Green’s convincingly terrifying depiction nearly steals the show in the scene where Cain confronts Chelsea about her feelings for Obi.

The excellent Huss Garbiya is at once hilarious and tragic as frenetic Reggie, the local crackhead whose addiction drags him to humiliating, destructive depths. Daniel Norford does a creditable turn as world-weary and lovesick Obi. The only performance that doesn’t completely ring true is Sophie Benjamin’s Chelsea; inspired in parts, mood-shatteringly melodramatic in others.

Nonetheless the dynamic duo of Kene and Walker serve up a mature and thoughtful piece that, amidst the hilarity, never forgets its deadly serious underlying message; hubris, mixed with ignorance, boredom and poor prospects is a very dangerous combination indeed.

–Tola Ositelu

Estate Walls Trailer: