God's Property

Arinze Kene gives us East-End History X, a brilliantly realised tale of two mixed-race brothers struggling with each other and their hostile, racist enviroment. At Soho Theatre.

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If Deptford was a dangerous place in Kit Marlowe's day, it doesn't seem to have calmed down much since – at least not by 1982, when Arinze Kene's excellent play God's Property is set. In the aftermath of the Brixton riots, Chima, half-Nigerian and half-Irish, returns home after 10 years in prison. He's spent two nights sleeping in stairwells, but gets no warmer a welcome from younger brother Ono, who in his absence has undergone the full Ben Sherman makeover, from shaven head right down to cherry-red Doc Martens. If Chima is surprised that he apparently wants to "look like a racist", Ono says it's the best way to blend in and be accepted in what's still an almost entirely white neighbourhood - and one in which "the Front" is still active.

He's lighter skinned than his brother, so is genuinely shocked to find his gambit has failed, as local white girl Holly tells him they could never officially be boyfriend and girlfriend because he's black. Chima, meanwhile, in a scene reminiscent of American History X, tells him about the prison experience that taught him white people will never truly accept him so he's better off sticking with "his own", and Ono should do the same. But he also seems to have a more specific reason to fear returning to Deptford, something to do with the family across the road who are the unofficial enforcers of the area. Unfortunately, they're also Holly's family, making it particularly important she doesn't find out who he is, or a reckoning consisting of more than "divers malicious words" is likely to follow.

As Ono, Ash Hunter has the challenge of playing someone who is himself playing a role he doesn't really believe in, not to mention the greatest emotional arc of the evening, and it's understandable if he takes a while to settle down into it and show more than one side to the character. Kingsley Ben-Adir's Chima has the stillness of a man who has walked into his worst nightmare, something which, as he says "nothing can prepare you for", and come out the other side. Bradley Gardner is effective and entertaining as local wide boy Liam, though his breakdown when he learns the truth about what happened years ago is less convincing. But the performance of the evening undoubtedly belongs to Ria Zmitrowicz as Holly – if she initially seems to be channelling Trisha Yates from early-80s Grange Hill, she soon develops it into a performance of astonishing skill and wit, hilarious without being merely a comic turn. Ellen Cairns' set conjures up the period (and the social milieu) perfectly.

I would have put money on a Butch/Sundance-style ending, with the two brothers stepping out to almost certain death, compared to which I feel Kene rather ends things in mid air. Is he making the point that Ono's merely being willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with his brother, because he's no longer ashamed of who he is, is more important than what actually happens to them? Perhaps. In any case, it's a minor quibble with a great evening's theatre that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

It’s 1982. London is restless, gripped by spiralling unemployment and inner city riots, Ska beats dominate the airwaves and in a flat in Deptford, South London two brothers are re-united unexpectedly. But notions of family and belonging are put to the test when a pack of hostile neighbours gather outside to deliver some rough justice.


‘Talawa has an impressive legacy – making theatre that people of any colour would queue round the block to see.’ Time Out

Soho Theatre

21 Dean Street
London Greater London United Kingdom W1D 3NE

Daily performances

7.30pm