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September 8, 2013 3:36 pm
The soap opera has become a cornerstone of popular culture, but just how authentic are the wildly event-laden lives of all those everyday folk? The Royal Court explored this question over the summer as part of its Open Court festival. Ten playwrights, led by Bola Agbaje and Rachel De-lahay, worked with local people in Peckham, south London, to create a pastiche soap opera drawing on daily life around them. The result was aired in bite-size pieces nightly at the Bussey Building in Peckham, then drawn together, in true soap opera style, in an omnibus edition: it’s that version that now reaches the Royal Court stage.
It’s a mischievous, light-hearted project, but also one that raises serious questions about the way “ordinary” people are portrayed and that plays around engagingly with form. In Peckham there were people from the community performing, in the community, a soap opera about that community. At the Royal Court a further layer is added, as that bustling community, formerly just outside the door, is now evoked through projected photographs, with the audience sitting in a mocked-up living room.
These are great ideas, and had the team had longer – both to work on the show and then to deliver it – they might have been able to dig deeper into them. As it is, what emerges is an enjoyable experience, but not one that fulfils its potential. The plot is a cautionary tale for our times: a pushy property developer moves into the area with designs on knocking down the local shops and building a shiny new complex. But the locals, fearing loss of livelihood and local character, mount a protest.
It’s a good soap subject: a serious, contemporary issue (gentrification of an area) brings personal moral dilemmas for the characters. What the project lacks is what soap operas usually have: time. Storylines that might work over a long period can only be sketched out here and the episodic televisual soap format means scenes are delivered, sometimes literally, on the run and are a bit hit and miss.
But it is performed with warmth and vivacity by the non-professional cast. There are eyecatching performances from Kola Bokinni as a confused teenager, Kemi Lofinmakin as a big-hearted hairdresser, Christopher Glover as a put-upon shopkeeper and Kevin Sevilla as his irrepressible assistant. Directed by Ola Animashawun, this interesting enterprise might be worth revisiting, as it raises more questions than it has time to answer.
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