Pigeon English is one of those books that you can’t imagine being a play. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, it’s about a 10-year-old Ghanian boy called Harri who has recently emigrated to a South London council estate. The story is narrated in his broken English, with occasional philosophising from one of his beloved pigeons.
My reservations didn’t last long. It turns out it works brilliantly on stage, thanks to a witty script from award-winning playwright Gbolahan Obisesan’s, slick choreography and an exuberant performance from the National Youth Theatre’s rep company, who play all the parts. The set is simple but effective: a sort of climbing frame, which the characters climb, swing from and dance on.
Not that this is a happy tale. Following a stabbing on the estate, Harri and his best mate decide to turn amateur detective and solve the murder. Back home, Harri’s big sister Lydia has fallen in with the wrong crowd and they’re both drawn into the gang.
Seraphina Beh is superb and very loveable as Harri (I didn’t even realise he was a she until a knowing aside halfway through). Felix Mackenzie-Barrow is hilarious as his mate and Daisy Fairclough is similarly impressive as his sister Lydia, who switches been a Ghanaian and street accent to fit in. As for the pigeon, its wise words have been given to the Never Normal Girl, who becomes a street poet.
The National Youth Theatre perform Pigeon English (photos: Helen Murray)
As in Kelman’s novel, the gang is as tragic as they are scary. They’re just playing at being gangsters: swaggering and blustering as teenagers always have, only with heartbreaking consequences. Having young actors playing every role underlines that. The only thing slightly lost in this adaptation is that the real thug is Julius, a rent collector who carries a baseball bat and beats up his girlfriend.
This year is the National Youth Theatre’s 60th and you can spot its famous alumni in the programme: Chiwetel Ejiofor in Othello in 1996, Rosamund Pike as Juliet in 1997, Matt Smith as a bishop in TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in 2003. With acting increasingly a rich man’s game, the NYT is as important as ever in shaping raw talent and giving it a leg up. Judging from tonight’s electric performance, the class of 2016 will also go far.
Pigeon English is at The Ambassdors Theatre until 22 November. NYT rep are also performing Romeo and Juliet until 23 November.