Laurence Fishburne

*The Arcola is a small theatre in Dalston Junction, an area of London with a reputation for being deprived. In its UK premiere, it was a fitting location to revive this play, following its 1994 debut in LA. where writer and Oscar nominated actor, Laurence Fishburne, directed and starred in the production.

This is a dark tale set over one long Halloween night in the lower East Side of New York. The Ghouls are unmasked as middle-aged junkies and drug dealers. Mike “20-20” Leon (Karl Collins) and his half-brother Billy “Torch” Murphy (Eugene O’Hare) are on the run from New York’s biggest drug lord after stealing three kilos of heroin and committing murder. But in the dimly lit and dingy abandoned crack den, they are haunted by the ghosts of the pasts be their familial or “friendly”.

They are revisited by a face from the past in the shape of Tony “the Tiger” Lee (Ariyon Bakare) — he is Mike’s old friend, the father of his God-Daughter Precious. But the only ‘jewels’, which truly bond these characters, are those, which can be smoked or injected.

The play is a breeding ground for anecdotes. But the play is alive in the intimate theatre. Indeed the drama often spills off stage and for those with a ringside seat, you find the need to move back lest you are physically impacted by the drama.

Set over eight hours with four scenes, but delivered in 90 minutes with no interval and a single rat-infested location, the audience is drawn into the bleak, chaotic and intense pressure cooker, which the characters inhabit.
As their location suggests, the characters have nothing but each other. Like the walls, they have been punctured by life. Fishburne starts to tell the universal through the personal journeys of these characters, yet you find yourself yearning to find out more about them – to go beyond their flaws.

Only Billy, who is white, truly tugs at your heartstrings. His struggle to accept his mixed-race brother, his sensitivity about being called “stupid”, and his memories of failing at school evoke sympathy without fully redeeming him. O’Hare does a convincing job in conveying the pain of being shot / shooting up and the embarrassment of wetting himself. His humorous one-liners occasionally lift the mood.

Mike’s skewed ’20-20′ antennae and his loyalty to Tony test the blood ties between he and blood-soaked Billy. But it is the unbalanced elements of brotherly love and sibling rivalry, which are most interesting to watch.
If you are far removed from this world it can be easy to resist the play. In particular as a woman, Tony’s misogynistic monologue may jar. However, this same scene, which re-ignites the debate about the place of poetry in plays, also acts as a magnet. It would seem it all comes down to the directing of this stylised piece with its abstract soundscape. It would be interesting to compare productions across the globe.

Fishburne exposes a world, which can seem dated in an age of The Wire. Even Billy’s commentary about the difficulties of getting into rehab was reminiscent of the 1997 film Gridlock’d. Yet sadly, drug dealers and addicts are bound by no decade. This tale is all too relevant.

Riff Raff is at the Arcola Theatre until 24th April
£14 (£10 concessions)

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The UK Corner covers urban entertainment from a British perspective and is written by Fiona McKinson. She is a freelance journalist and creative writer based in London. Contact her at [email protected].