Kerry Jackson, written by April de Angelis and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, is a wonderfully entertaining new play which despite its dark themes (abuse, grief and homelessness) manages to get the audience laughing both heartily and frequently whilst thinking about class in our post-Brexit world.
Fay Ripley is full of life and contagious energy as Kerry Jackson. She is uninhibited, direct and confident, she brings the party wherever she goes, but she also tends to put her foot in it. The play follows the life of Kerry as she ventures out in her ambitious new business enterprise, establishing the new tapas bar, El Barco, in East London’s heavily gentrified Walthamstow village. Working alongside the brash and loud Kerry, is capable and calm chef, Athena (Madeline Appiah), who is technically being employed illegally by Kerry – who really couldn’t run the place without her. New clientele at El Barco includes the thoroughly middle-class father and daughter duo, Stephen and Alice, and an old ex-policeman acquaintance of Kerry’s, Warren, who by his own definition is an old flame of Kerry’s (while she, on the other hand, doesn’t even remember him from a speed dating episode in their past). Will (Michael Fox), the resident homeless guy, seems to be present as an attempt for April de Angelis to suggest that homeless doesn’t equal uneducated, and being the disenfranchised victim doesn’t necessarily make you a sympathetic character. Will reads Austen and comments on the life of Boudica, before alighting on a kindred spirit in uneducated, right-wing Kerry, as the two find common ground in their surprisingly similar politics. The premise feels forced and unnatural, as all these characters from almost categorically different strata of society end up in ridiculous circumstances together; but seriousness aside, at least it was funny.
Kerry Jackson covers most of the woke issues of our times, from state-of-the-nation commentary to identity politics, and yet the play never takes itself too seriously, even when the characters do (which is refreshing). At the same time, a play which should be (at least unwittingly or subtly) profound, ends up feeling like a casual sitcom which just misses the mark in seriously commenting on class in contemporary British society.
Richard Kent’s wonderful set spins between two main spaces: Kerry’s stylish and cosy El Barco (the bait for gentrification’s target audience) and Stephen and Alice’s Farrow & Ball-clad house (the target audience itself). Stephen and Alice’s elegantly sky-lit kitchen epitomises upper middle-class domesticity – the Smeg fridge is duck-egg blue, the cabinets are olive green and Ecover bottles conspicuously litter the room (strong recycling game, guys). Between these two warm and liveable spaces, is the dark alleyway home to El Barco’s bins and substitute toilet spot for Will.
Stephen and Alice are openly hospitable towards Will, whilst Kerry is openly hostile, and well-educated, gen-Z Alice (Kitty Hawthorne) can’t bear Kerry’s perceived small-mindedness. The play, however, is asking us to consider reality as well as idealised ethics too. Isn’t it easier for Stephen to hand over twenty quid to Will and buy him an avocado sandwich, when he doesn’t have to spare a moment to worry about his rent or if his business is about to collapse, like Kerry does? And with that, de Angelis is breaking down the ‘goodies and baddies’, as she puts it; but then Will dies and we never get to know him as anybody other than as “the homeless guy”.
April De Angelis has explained how she wanted to move beyond polarised opposites in this script and instead play with nuance – the lefties and the Leavers in one space and one (albeit unlikely and far-fetched) scenario. I think that this is done effectively – both Kerry and Stephen, the antithetical characters, are flawed in the end, the rug pulled from under their feet as they are made to look like fools, and Alice gets nowhere with her wokeness – who is she kidding? Just herself. When Will dies, tragically, the play is still funny, even during Will’s memorial – is this ok? Who knows – I think we are denying art its role if we focus on the morality of this scene too much. The scene is undeniably tragic, in an uncomfortable sort of way, whilst simultaneously being funny – which I think is quite a clever and thought-provoking combination.
The character of Alice (Kitty Hawthorne) is likeable and cringeworthy in equal measure. Spurring unsolicited soundbites like a walking activist, it is only her youthful enthusiasm which takes the edge off her know-it-all attitude. What I found interesting, however, is that I didn’t feel anything much at all for this grieving teenager who is utterly lost – but was I meant to? Has she been written as a stereotype of the snowflake generation or is she supposed to solicit sympathy?
Alice is nineteen, and whether it is the fact that this is Kitty Hawthorne’s professional theatre debut, or whether she’s been directed to speak with such extreme self-conviction at all times, I do wonder if they’ve got it quite right with this character…aren’t you a little bit more self-aware by nineteen, and not run by blind confidence like a child? I wish.
It is with trepidation that I write this, for fear of being a Stephen (Michael Gould) – the play’s liberal lefty; how does one respond to a play saturated with buzz words and playing with wokeness itself? If this play is trying to tell us anything, then it has something to do with recognising our own ignorance – from those who dropped out of school mid-teens to those who teach philosophy in vegan slippers, it’s going to take more than Stephen’s use of psychological theories to bridge the class divide in the UK.
This new play felt like watching a Netflix comedy which you’re prepared to binge-watch for the laughs – its best moments featuring dancing and karaoke-style singing, but it still needs more of that valuable element of nuance in order to reach greater depth in its conclusion.
Image credit – Marc Brenner
Review by Lucy Evans
Lucy’s passion for the arts began with drawing and painting at a young age and developed later on into a love of landscape painting and a degree in Art History, with a focus on Modernism and gender. Lucy has grown to love literature and acting in particular, and her experiences acting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have been formative, convincing her that performance can be an essential tool for communication and connection, as well as of course being a valuable source of entertainment.
Read Lucy’s latest review here Review: Othello, National Theatre-Clint Dyer plays out Othello like an exposed wound (abundantart.net)
Kerry Jackson is running at the Dorfman Theatre until 28 Jan 23. Tickets Kerry Jackson | National Theatre