In just one night, amid mostly well-placed explosions of song, Akenna manages to encapsulate a young black woman’s early twenties with all the post-teen panic, desire for connection, and struggles for self-acceptance that it warrants. Directed by Chinonyerem Odimba, Cheeky Little Brown is at once hilarious and sobering, an unrestrained production that never attempts to sugarcoat.
It’s Gemma’s 25th birthday party, and after six months of estrangement, Lady (Tiagna Amayo) is about to see her childhood best friend again. Armed with a few choice drinks which she slugs back at frequent intervals, and guarding a table full of food, Lady is turbo-charged with fragile excitement.
This quickly evolves into confusion and anger as it dawns on her that Gemma isn’t as thrilled to see her as expected, and their relationship history is revealed to have gone beyond mere friendship. What follows is a failed party, a hilarious hunt for and serenade to a kebab, a sobering journey home, and the post-party free fall after the door closes behind and no one is watching.
Watching Amayo bounce around the stage and belt out original and familiar numbers is a genuine delight. Lady burns hotter than a blue flame, with a rage and desire that rattles every scene. Yet on the occasions when the mask of confidence slips, when the doubt creeps in, she folds in on herself, reduced to embers.
These quick-fire transitions might leave the audience with whiplash, but Amayo communicates an emotional depth that is so captivating as to keep us glued to our seats. She expertly morphs into several different people over the course of the play, including Gemma’s hilariously irritating new friend Jessie who ‘Lady’ impersonates with childlike glee. Despite this, she remains more than capable to be able to portray Lady in her entirety.
Akkenna’s writing is funny in all the right places, and where the humour naturally recedes, what surges forward is so poignant as to give your heartstrings a sharp tug.
Everything that Lady is and does appears simultaneously exaggerated and all too real; from her cringeworthy attempts at capturing Gemma’s attention, to her social awkwardness, to her weave of candyfloss curls reduced to mere braids when she gets home, to her raging at her changed ex as they both struggle to pick up and dust off their old friendship.
Underneath it all is a bottomless well of hurt, a precarious sense of identity, and an unwillingness to move towards something new.
Director Odimba and designer Aldo Vasquez combine their considerable talents in the staging of the production. A row of magenta pink balloons spelling out, “Birthday Guurrl” are rearranged at notable moments throughout the performance, reflecting Lady’s changing moods and the fragmented state of the night. There is some confusion over a so-claimed spotless white carpet overrun with dirty dark smudges, and the appearance of a garish foil pigeon as Lady stumbles through the menacing streets of London alone detracts from a significant moment that could have used more room to breathe.
This aside, Cheeky Little Brown is a play of intense emotion and endless disparities, filled out with witty dialogue and songs that complement the emotional core of the story. It expertly encapsulates that all-consuming longing for what we have lost and can never get back.
Cheeky Little Brown is presented by tiata fahodzi, with co-producing partners Bristol Old Vic and Belgrade Theatre. It will play at the Belgrade Theatre on 24-28 October, and the Derby Theatre on 30 October – 3 November.
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