Theatre review: Peckham the soap opera

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BYLINE: Jack Wittels

“Something’s always going down – it’s Peckham…If you lived in the suburbs you’d hear birds singing, children playing and the wind in the trees. But here, in Peckham, you hear pigeons squawking, kids shouting, and the wind you feel is just sirens whizzing past every five frigging seconds.”

So says Amir (Christopher Glover) halfway through the opening episode of Peckhamthe soap opera, now running at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square (Sept 3-14). Immediately following an immigration raid on an illegal salon just metres from his grocery shop, his synopsis seems, if anything, watered down. Yet as we grow used to this play’s swirling confusion of black-market hairdressing, misplaced affections and a lost “Oyster”, an authentic community begins to emerge: Peckham has landed in the West End.

The plot is simple. Bullish London property developer James (Simon Balcon) is determined to convert large swathes of Peckham, including its beating heart – the job centre – into plush residential flats, forcing locals to traipse all the way to Lewisham to find work. But the Peckhamites will not easily surrender their homes and sense of community, and battle commences between the rival factions.

Presented in a series of ten “episodes” by 16 local amateur actors, the straightforward narrative enhances rather than detracts from the play. Easily followed, it leaves space for a string of sub-plots that delve into the characters’ private lives and highlight pertinent social issues.

20 year-old Joey (Kola Bokinni), for instance, embodies youth unemployment, while local student Mick (Guy Atkins) and his girlfriend Lucy (Phoebe Eclair-Powell) form part of the influx of young, middle-class men and women currently migrating to Peckham.

Delivered in a cheerful, Del Boy-esque style and featuring plenty of slapstick gags, the production draws a constant stream of chuckles throughout its 75 minute runtime. Unfortunately, this light hearted atmosphere also proves something of a stumbling block. The unemployed Joey’s comic buffoonery skims over the deeper desperation this young man must be privately experiencing, and the other characters fall into the same trap, apparently devoid of personal depth. The issues portrayed consequently lack a sense of realism; they are presented to the audience, but not explored at the individual level.

Yet to focus too much on these shortcomings is to misunderstand the purpose of Peckham: the soap opera. As its title suggests, this play is not trying to enter the pantheon of great psychological dramas.

Rather, its aim is to draw attention to the issues of the day, and in this it succeeds brilliantly; gentrification and the resulting loss of community, along with political, cultural and racial clashes are all covered, waking the West End audience up to what life can be like South of the river. And with an increasing number of media outlets labelling Peckham the new East London, citing Frank’s Café and the Bussey Building (where this play made its debut) as evidence, these issues are only becoming more relevant.

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