Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Theatre review: Octagon

The titular Octagon in Kristiana Rae Colón's play is the venue for a US national poetry slam competition; but it's also the shape of the relationship between the eight characters, which makes a love triangle seem positively straightforward. A former poet herself, Pen (Estella Daniels) runs a bar that holds regular slam nights, where the crew who've qualified for the Octagon are local celebrities. Chimney (Solomon Israel) is the captain, although nobody seems to have told the others that; Chad (Harry Jardine) is a teacher by day, whose religious beliefs come with a judgmental side; and Palace (Asan N'Jie) is currently in the doghouse after sleeping with the fourth member's girlfriend, prompting him to quit. Not wanting to go to the nationals as a trio, they hold an open-mike slam at Pen's club; the winner gets to become the new fourth member.

Palace thinks they need a female voice, and suggests the earnest political poet Jericho (Crystal Condie.) But everyone knows the biggest talent is Lara Rossi's Prism.

Prism is very sexually adventurous - we first meet her telling her current boyfriend Tide (Leemore Marrett Jr) to strangle her harder during sex (so... she's probably not named after the character from The Importance of Being Earnest.) This has got her a reputation as a slut, and Chad and Chimney don't think the judges will be able to look past that to her poetry. In any case they've allowed an unseen panel of judges to take the decision out of their hands, and what looks like a straight battle between the two women is complicated by the inevitable arrival of a mysterious stranger, Atticus (Martins Imhangbe,) throwing his own hat into the ring.

This is a real ensemble piece, which has both strengths and weaknesses: There's an attempt to give each of the eight a distinctive personality, which means the setting has a really three-dimensional feel. It doesn't allow much depth to any individual story thread, but Nadia Latif's production makes up for this, in the first act at least, with power and pace: Despite a tiny audience tonight, Daniels does her best to imbue the evening with the feel of an actual night at a slam; and the heartfelt subject matters combined with witty lyrics make for a lot of showstopping sequences.

But the fact that there's a lot of underdeveloped storylines set up does mean the play struggles a bit after the interval, when Colón tries to take a step back and look at the relationships between everyone. The cast, headed by Rossi's unapologetically, but self-destructively sexual Prism, do a great job with the complex entanglements that are always revealing new combinations and old grudges, but trying to give everyone equal weight means a few of the scenes feel perfunctory. And with the action now going behind the scenes, the energy of the competition is missed. It doesn't help that the show runs almost half an hour longer than the advertised 2 hours 20 minutes; I don't know why anyone would want the audience to spend most of the second act looking at their watches and wondering how many trains they're going to miss*, but it's not the best way to get involved in the story. Still, in those scenes that work best the energy feels fresh and different to anything else on a London stage at the moment.

Octagon by Kristiana Rae Colón is booking until the 17th of October at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

*two, thanks for asking; I had to make a run for it the moment the bows were over to stop it becoming three

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