Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Tanika Gupta's White Boy tells the story of a collection of types who have less interior life between them than my teapot. Ricky, the titular white boy, is a loveable, loyal loser who spends his time looking up to his black best friend, Vic - a sporting hero, hard-worker and all-round good egg. Ricky has even adopted a thick Jamaican patois (cf. the white Rastafarian, Gary, in Citizenship) to underline how much he wants to be his best friend - who, curiously, doesn’t have a Jamaican accent at all. Meanwhile, the school bully, “Flips”, is chasing after the school Sudanese refugee, who is called “Sorted”. This all carries on for a bit, until in a sudden and tragic denouement Flips accidentally bashes Vic in the face with a baseball bat, killing him outright, and Sorted stabs Flips to death with a tiny penknife he is looking after for Vic’s girlfriend. It is curiously like watching a whole series of Grange Hill magically condensed into the longest hour I have spent in a theatre for quite some time.
Director Juliet Knight has sprinkled in some neatly done dance sequences, a slow motion replay of the final showdown and a whole three minutes of tragic singing while the school gates festooned with floral tributes after the fatal thwacking. She has also set the young cast a dazzling array of tics and mannerisms to deal with, seems to have ordered them to stand much too close to each other all the time, and appears not to have decided whether she thinks she’s directing Fame or something gritty. For all this, the young cast do an amazing job. The principle characters are, by and large, utterly convincing. Obi Iwumene makes an affable Vic. Luke Norris manages to sustain Ricky’s strangely affected accent while still presenting a likeable front, and Ciaran Owens as Flips only occasionally lets his accent drop enough to hint at the long string of RSC roles which no doubt await him on the other side of Rada.
However, in spite of its hurried exposition, largely immaterial middle and sudden ending, White Boy captures something of the listlessness, futility and the accidental escalations of aggression that mark out teenage life. It is probably also worth noting that the default racism into which both the white male characters descend at several points is so hackneyed and cheap that it is almost mildly racist in itself. As a comment on youth violence, though, it suggests that these deaths are little more than tragic accidents - the results of unchecked bravado. While this may not be the whole story, it is at least good to see a play which doesn’t dissolve into hysterical conspiracy theorising and panic mongering. Instead it reduces the lives of the capital’s youth to streams of unthinking boredom relieved only by cheap music, throwaway platitudes and sudden, unintended fatalities.