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Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree Theatre | Review

Anyebe Godwin and Rachel Nwokoro in LITTLE BABY JESUS by Arinzé Kene - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by Ali Wright.
Anyebe Godwin and Rachel Nwokoro in LITTLE BABY JESUS by Arinzé Kene – Orange Tree Theatre – photo by Ali Wright.

If we are serious about understanding what’s going on within Black communities and getting to grips with knife crime then we need to pay attention to the writer Arinzé Kene. In a body of work which includes Misty, Estate Walls and Little Baby Jesus he articulates the perils and promise of being young and black in Britain in 2019. In a production directed by the winner of the JMK Award for 2019, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, Little Baby Jesus focuses on three young people at the moment they become adult. That’s the premise. The three are Rugrat (Khai Shaw) Joanne (Rachel Nwokoro) and Kehinde (Anyebe Godwin). These three take it in turns to tell their story or stories. Each monologue can only be understood in relation to the other two. It makes for a compelling series of narrative streams that flow stream of consciousness like to create a river, a sea, an ocean and ultimately a world of rich, funny and disturbing insights. This is not for the faint heated. It is hard core inner city street talk with some very uncomfortable moments. A rocky road but a necessary one.

One way to get to grips with Little Baby Jesus is to see it in terms of the Theatre of Cruelty and the experience of Schadenfreude. The Theatre of Cruelty explores the dark side of humanity. The mocking, the jeering, revelling in whatever humiliates or degrades us. Ultimately glorying violence and murder. Schadenfreude, laughing at the misfortunes of others, has accompanied the Theatre of Cruelty as one way of responding to said humiliations. Don’t show compassion, laugh at the losers. Well teenagers in schools are the experts at both the Theatre of Cruelty and Schadenfreude. And this is where Little Baby Jesus really excels. It captures like no other play I’ve seen the extraordinary and unremitting culture of humiliation that goes on in our schools, streets and estates. The ridicule, mockery and humiliation covers everything from appearance, clothes (He was wearing Sandals or Oxfam trainers), the shape of your head (your head man it’s oblong) your mum (a particularly hurtful target as many of these children revere their mother, having an absent father) your intelligence or lack of it and on it goes. Compounding this incessant ordeal of cruelty is Schadenfreude. Laughing out loud at the misfortunes of others. Not just laughing but literally rolling on the floor in ecstasies of unabashed joy.

Put these two experiences together and we begin to see why there is so much pain and anger. But it gets worse. The febrile topsy turvy nature of this culture has an added twist. There is an elephant trap for the unwary. You can so easily cross the line from laughing with to laughing at and then you are in big trouble. A classic peripeteia. A sudden and unexpected reversal of fortune. You can be in the inner circle and then suddenly on a whim you are outside the group. Little Baby Jesus shows this time and time again. The two words “three thirty” sent shivers down my spine as it brought back memories of the gut wrenching feeling of knowing that at “three thirty” someone would be waiting for you for a fight. The mob in Little Baby Jesus baying for blood shouting “fight, fight, fight” and placing bets on the outcome. The first half of the play captures this world superbly. The performances are astonishingly good and the dialogue and language are superlative. The mixture of slang, street talk and straight English is mesmerising.

Having depicted a very disturbing world the second half takes on more of a religious-philosophical-scientific turn. We get three coming of age or moments of epiphany as each character in turn tells their defining life moment. The allusions to religion, the classics and science come thick and fast. Pulling out a carpet stuck in a washing machine in the local laundry referencing King Arthur and the sword in the stone (a boy nick named Aladdin manages to pull the carpet out) – a pilgrimage organised by the School RE department and a forest retreat are all backdrops for said revelations. Each character comes to their own moment of realisation and epiphany. Little Baby Jesus is an important play, with insights that are urgently relevant for us all. Arinzé Kene is an important new voice whose work deserves to be seen. An adaptation for TV?

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Okay listen up, you have seventy-five years to be all you can be!
Joanne is dipped in rudeness, rolled in attitude and is fighting to keep her life afloat. Sensitive and mature he may be, yet Kehinde struggles with an obsession for mixed race girls as he eyes his place on the social ladder. Rugrat, class clown and playground loudmouth, just wants to make it past GCSEs and keep their name on the tip of your tongue.

As their lives collide and intertwine, three extraordinary young people relay the moments they ‘grew up’. Three remarkable stories. Three incredible journeys.

Anyebe Godwin, Rachel Nwokoro and Khai Shaw will appear in the first major revival of Arinzé Kene’s Little Baby Jesus, directed by Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, winner of the JMK Award 2019. The production is designed by Tara Usher, lighting by Bethany Gupwell, sound by Nicola Chung, movement by DK Fashola and casting by Nadine Rennie and Sarah Murray.

by Arinzé Kene
Directed by Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, winner of the JMK Award 2019
18 October – 16 November 2019


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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