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Review: cheeky little brown (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Review by Sam Waite




It’s a moment many of us have lived through, at least once – you see a friend you’ve been away from for too long, and when you meet their new friends, you can’t help but notice thar someone like you wouldn’t fit into this new world. This makes it easy to relate to Lady, the character at the heart of cheeky little brown, a messy and conflicted heroine who doesn’t recognise her best friend’s life, friends, or choices as anything she’s known before.


Written by Nkenna Akunna, cheeky little brown finds Lady arriving at the new home of the best friend she hasn’t seen or spoken to in six months, who is celebrating her 25th birthday. Gemma, it turns out, is less than impressed to see her bestie of two decades, and as Lady gets more drunk – and more openly upset – her housemate Jessie has to step in to try – and fail – to ease the situation. Following Lady as she ruins the party, returns home via night bus, and stops for a particularly cheeky lamb donner, we get her insights into long-term friendships, unrequited love, and struggling to stay connected as Gemma gravitates to her newer, whiter friends.

Tiajna Amayo, gamely stepping onstage with crutches following an injury in rehearsals, performs as Lady, as well as giving voice to the myriad of characters she encounters through that fateful night. Utilising the crutches brilliantly in some early comedic moments, Amayo is a dynamic and expressive performer, really helping to sell the London everygirl – a bit too messy, maybe too food-driven, definitely drinking too much and making far too big a scene. Funny and affecting throughout, she is an absolute star shining bright on the Stratford East stage.


Less consistent is the writing itself – running at just 90 minutes, cheeky little brown could still stand a trim, cutting some extraneous moments short (or entirely) and putting more focus on the slow-burning revelation of what happened between Lady and Gemma six months prior. Akunna has created believable, instantly recognisable characters, but it’s a shame to see this familiarity fail to build towards real humanity. The final third, though preceded by an uncomfortably long transition, is easily the strongest of the play, and I found myself wishing we’d reached these pivotal emotional beats sooner. Lady is at her most lovable, and easiest to sympathise with, when either at the party or in the peace of her own home, and the time spent on the journey between drags by comparison.


Director Chinonyerem Odimba keeps up a continual energy and sense of momentum, allowing Lady’s journey – both literal and emotional – to come across to the audience with minimal alterations to Aldo Vazquez’s set. Along with Amayo’s work, Odimba has helped create the idea of crowding, of discomfort, with only one person on stage. Vazquez’s “HAPPY BIRTHDAY GURRRL” balloons and table of drinks help set the party scene and are a delight to look at the smaller details of, but unfortunately these touches are largely left abandoned once the first third ends and Lady has left the birthday party.


Nkenna Akunna’s script also features original songs performed by Amayo, who showcases some strong vocal abilities while mostly leaning into performing in the voice of her character, whose abilities are more questionable. Like a musical sequel to Chewing Gum Dreams, the show devolves into sung interludes when Lady wants to let us into her innermost thoughts, and the sung and – at one point – rapped lyrics blend with the music to demonstrate not only how she feels, but the world she grew up in. The songs perfectly match the kind of girl who would reminisce about choreographing routines to Ashanti or rapping her own lyrics alongside Biggie. These are particularly memorable songs, likely to be forgotten before the next one even begins, but they certainly carry a sense of authenticity.


Uneven but never boring, cheeky little brown has a lot to say and plenty to explore – it’s just unfortunate it takes a little too long to really explore it. Boasting some fantastic moments and a striking leading performance from Tiajna Amayo make for a charming, if uneven, night at the theatre.


Cheeky little brown plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until April 20th



Photos by Craig Fuller 



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