A ‘topical peg’ off which to hang a pre-held opinion must be an immensely irritating thing for a playwright to find themselves. Roy Williams, whose new play Joe Guy opened last week at the Soho Theatre, finds himself in just such a position thanks to an article from this Sunday’s Observer. The piece takes Williams’s play and reduces it to a couple of lines of racial politics. I dread to think how many potential audience members will now steer clear as a result of this cock-eyed view of the play.
The eponymous Joe Boateng is a first generation Ghanaian immigrant footballer, who in his teens is teased by his British-Caribbean peers for his accent and studious attitude. He goes on to achieve enormous success as a footballer, gradually through the narrative ditching his old life, his accent and eventually his moral compass. While the play uses his specific racial identity as a starting point for these events, in the final analysis it is impossible to read Joe Guy as anything other than a curiously old-fashioned morality tale.
As the play opens Joe is being interviewed by a tabloid journalist. We hear that he has been implicated in one of those footballer-rape-stories which surface with worryingly frequency on the front of our red-top Sunday press. We hear that he has been accused of fathering a child with some other woman. In short, in the first five minutes, we are given precious little to like about the play’s central character beyond an undeniable wit and charisma. But then we flip back ten years and Joe is Joseph, a likeably diffident, earnest young man trying to do his job in a burger bar in spite of the abuse he is getting from two young girls and a contemporary from school.
And this is pretty much the scope of the play, which goes on to chart the transformation of the latter young man into the former. Williams’s writing fairly fizzes and sparks throughout. It is as if the mechanics of plot simply irritate him in comparison to the creation of verbal swordplay. At its best the language deployed is every bit as rhythmically acute and dazzling as a latter-day Shakespeare. The plot, on the other hand, is in need of a good going-over with a red pen. As a result, if the play is trying to say anything particular, it gets slightly lost in the clunk-click progress of the story.
Is the play’s racial dimension significant? Yes, insofar as it nominally seems to provide both the engine and the central image for Joe’s gradual downward moral spiral. Although I wonder if Williams intends the possible reading that the more Boateng abandons his West African accent in favour of a Jamaican patois the worse his conduct becomes. Surely we are not meant to view the play through an African: good, Jamaican: bad prism. And, yes, the apparent divisions between London’s African and Jamaican black communities is at least depicted, if not actively explored, beyond a few outrageous comments made by a radio phone-in guest and by Joe’s father suggesting that Africans are superior to Jamaicans because they weren’t so stupid as to get caught and enslaved.
For all that, Joe’s story is essentially no different to that of Faustus: it is a narrative of soul-selling. The further Joe moves from his roots, and is given greater and greater riches, the more he abandons traditional ideas of decency and morality. Joe Guy would be a far more interesting piece of work if the obvious attractions and moral tug-of-war was foregrounded. As it is, it is impossible to empathise with the thuggish lout that he quickly becomes. Moral pangs are clumsily deployed in the form of overheard conversations and occasional defeated looks. More interesting yet would be the Barker or Ravenhill version in which morality were cut from the picture altogether, leaving the audience to pick their own way through the spectacle of a man suddenly enabled to act on his most depraved, licentious or avaricious instincts.