Saturday, May 28th 2022 at The Bridge House Theatre, London
Reviewer: Maygan Forbes
Fresh from it’s 5* run at the White Bear Theatre, A Final Act of Friendship, is a celebration of friendship and love, what it means to step outside of your own prejudices and see the person underneath it all. Written by Stephen Hayward and directed by Natalya Micic, the play not only begs the question how far will you go for a friend, but also takes on an alternative perspective of masculinity and sexuality. A Final Act of Friendship is both beautiful and authentic, it is clear the writer Hayward put a great deal of love and respect into this play.
The play begins with a haunting soliloquy by Michael (Gbenga Jempeji) who sets the tone of the play, that his struggles, his success, the respect he’s garnered for himself in the industry – it is meaningless in a society that automatically paints him the villain due to the colour of his skin. It’s reality for every person of colour in this world and it makes the journey for success and living a life fulfilled with your dreams incredibly hard and unobtainable. Jempeji creates a sense of solidarity in the space, drawing the audience in to what we are about to witness on stage.
The first scene involves the two friends meeting for the first time in an audition for drama school. Robin (played by Stephen Hayward) assumes his position of privilege almost instantly. His status in the world is just a microcosm of what is displayed on stage. Robin is immediately threatened by Michael’s confidence and his nerve to even show up in the same space and think he has a chance. As a black female, I have found myself in predominately white spaces and felt inferior, not only is the internal dialogue of imposter syndrome naturally embedded in a lot of POC’s psyche, but sometimes there is an unspoken energy in these spaces that exudes “you’re not welcome here”. It’s hard to explain and often I gaslight myself into thinking it’s a feeling I’m experiencing out of paranoia, but Hayward does a wonderful job in putting words to these sentiments and showing it on stage for exactly what it is. The premature judgements challenge the notion of first impressions and what they really mean when it based in bias and racism.
As the play continues, nuanced discussions relating to industry box ticking are exposed and challenged. It’s refreshing to see conversations like this being placed on stage with open dialogue. The storyline is very easy to follow and you don’t feel like the narrative is cheating its way through the play. Everything makes sense, which in the context of a play about racism – is a hard pill to swallow. One thing that didn’t sit right with me was Micheal’s backstory in the play. He grows up in a poor family, has to work two jobs during his time at drama school to look after his sisters and mother. His father appears to absent in the play, there are references to Robin’s father (mainly dotted in the play for comedic effect). This is such an overplayed, stereotypical trope for black people’s backstories when written by non POC. Whilst Micheal’s backstory is a reality for millions of POC all over the world, it’s not the only story.
Robin’s family is white and wealthy, he grew up never having to want for anything and doesn’t understand why Micheal struggles with time keeping (it’s because Micheal is also caring for his family). Robin is able to place a show on at the Edinburgh Fringe whilst Micheal is waiting for opportunities from auditions. The juxtaposition is annoyingly tedious. The working class black man trope angling for a way out of the estates has its effect when it’s a story told by a person of colour, but it can come across as gimmicky and lazy; the “accepted” version of a black person in the UK who is ultimately done wrong by a racist society.
Micheal is constantly taunted by the lingering presence of a higher authority – whether it be the police or the directors at drama school who is using him to fill a quota. I appreciated Hayward gently approaching this subject, the effects were still felt whilst still being cautious to safeguard the audience from the topics being discussed. Overall this is a story that deserves to be told and put to the forefront and I’m excited to see follow both Hayward and Jempeji’s work in the future!
A Final Act of Friendship has finished its run at the Bridge House Theatre, but you can check out current listings at the theatre here.
Image credit: Natalya Micic