Derby Theatre puts the local community in the spotlight in this diverse and authentic new play…
In an era dominated by ultra-convenient on-demand streaming apps, the necessity of leaving home for our entertainment has been called into question – but Obe ‘Rukus’ Watson’s play 4 Walls feels like a deliberate attempt to galvanise local people into returning to the theatre.
Built from the ground up by a diverse team of homegrown talent, the show wears its Derby roots on its sleeve by embracing local accents and peppering in references to familiar settings like Markeaton Park. If you live locally, there’s probably only a few degrees of separation between yourself and someone who worked on the play.
4 Walls follows an ensemble cast of neighbours from different backgrounds whose lives overlap in unexpected ways. Among these characters are a young Romanian man who becomes an online rap sensation, an elderly member of the Windrush Generation and her family, and a white single mother who leaves home to shield her dual-heritage child from her parents’ casual racism – all people who have attempted to rebuild the intangible construct that is ‘home’.
Tying together these thematic threads is our narrator, the landlord of the estate, played by Joseph Black. His laid-back performance feels more akin to stand-up comedy than stage acting, and while some of the narration feels too abstract and estranged from the events at hand, Black establishes a strong rapport with the audience through wit and charisma. It’s fitting that the character in possession of the estate’s master key is the one who can break the fourth wall at will.
“A pertinent snapshot of Derby capable of resonating with a wide cross-section of its population”
4 Walls is at its best when it focuses on the small yet meaningful interactions between characters who, on the surface, appear to share little common ground – like when migrant Nico (Timotei Cobeanu) shows his neighbour Femi (Jerone Marsh-Reid) how to lock his front door. “I’ve been through many doors in my life,” he says, inconspicuously hinting at an unstable upbringing. Single mums Lotty (Ida Reagan) and Tisha (Coronation Street’s Kate Spencer) also have great chemistry, and the differences in their temperaments and parenting styles set up some of the show’s best comedic gags.
The cast also bring additional talents to the table beyond just acting – Cobeanu and Marsh-Reid both get a chance to rap, there’s a powerful ballad sung by Donna Briscoe-Greene, and Reagan lays her character’s heart bare with an expressive dance performance. There’s also a wonderful soundtrack featuring saxophonist Marcus Joseph that enhances the show’s emotional beats tenfold.
Just as key to the success of the play as the people we see on the stage are the creatives behind the scenes. The innovative yet austere set design by Charlotte Henery includes both indoor and outdoor features, and walls lined with doors that could either lead in or out depending on the context, allowing for smooth transitions between scenes. Ambient lighting by Benny Goodman sets the mood for each episode, and in some instances, photographs of characters are projected onto the stage to give us glimpses of their lives outside of what’s directly shown in the play.
While there’s lots for audiences to appreciate and relate to, the ending of the play is likely to be more divisive, as a somewhat contrived plot twist strains to amplify what is already an emotional conclusion in its own right. It definitely adds an element of surprise, but feels a lot less plausible than the other, more grounded developments that unfold throughout.
Nonetheless, 4 Walls showcases what’s possible when talented local people are given the opportunities and resources to tell meaningful stories for their own communities. Diverse and authentic, this is a pertinent snapshot of Derby capable of resonating with a wide cross-section of its population.
4 Walls played at Derby Theatre from Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th September