Little Baby Jesus at Orange Tree Theatre
Arinzé Kene writes with energy. Coming years before his West-End-via-Bush-Theatre smash Misty, 2011’s Little Baby Jesus is three intercut monologues tracing that liminal period before you properly grow up. It’s a savvy revival by the Orange Tree Theatre, one that has been brought to life with incredible skill and character by 2019 JMK Young Director Award winner Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, alongside the fresh-faced cast of Anyebe Godwin, Rachel Nwokoro and Khai Shaw.
Dressed in school shirts scribbled with highlighter-goodbyes and trapped in Tara Usher’s tarmac roundabout, “mature” Kehinde (Godwin), “dipped in rudeness” Joanne (Nwokoro) and “class clown” Rugrat (Shaw) jostle for attention, relaying tales of three-thirty fights, launderette romances and contentious races.
Honestly, the first half is kinda perfect. Working with Kene’s spot-on depictions of black teen life, the three performers are so confident it feels like they are improvising, responding to the audience with ad-libs in a way that really makes the most of how intimate the Orange Tree is. Whoever is speaking acts as puppet master, directing the other two with finger batons. The movement and physicality of each actor is a constant source of joy: hunched backs of grandmas, loping swaggers of wannabe gangsters, wall-bouncing excitement at the prospect of a post-school bust-up.
A point to the ceiling unleashes all manner of music. Nicola Chang’s sound design is reminiscent of the works of Edgar Wright, including one specific Scott Pilgrim-esque moment. It’s startling just how assured it is – unforgivingly funny, rapidly paced and minutely observed.
Things change slightly after the (perhaps unnecessary) interval. As the three strands start to merge with each other, the tone shifts away from the hyperactive comedy of the first half. It’s still funny – especially in the case of Nwokoro, who is a standout in a production of standouts. However, there’s an increased sense of spirituality, a renewed focus on a plot that feels like it’s missing a few steps, and an emphasis on the exact flashpoints of ‘”growing up”.
Not all of it works; and it definitely is a comedown after the giddiness that precedes it. But the play still manages to be touching amidst some narrative confusion – three young people, without much, if any, support, forced to come out the other side of a life-changing event.
Photos: Ali Wright
Little Baby Jesus is at Orange Tree Theatre from 18th October until 16th November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.