NW Trilogy review – let’s hear it for melting-pot Brent’s brilliant stories

·3 min read

NW Trilogy comprises three short plays with one overarching concept: each draws on the immigrant history of Brent, the London borough in which the Kiln theatre stands.

In Moira Buffini’s Dance Floor, an Irish girl runs away from home to escape the cultural shame of her pregnancy and becomes a cleaner in “County Kilburn”. In Roy Williams’ Life of Riley, a mixed-race teenager confronts the father who left home to pursue his now faltered music career with Trojan Records. And in Suhayla El-Bushra’s Waking/Walking, an Indian factory worker becomes a “scab” to keep her family afloat while friends stage spirited strikes at Grunwick.

The idea is similar to that of Out West, recently staged at the Lyric Hammersmith and loosely tied together by locality. The concept might have confined the material or left us skimming the surface of these bite-sized dramas but instead it works to spellbinding effect. Directed by Taio Lawson and Susie McKenna, and presented as part of Brent’s year as the Mayor’s London Borough of Culture in 2020, NW Trilogy is powerful in its storytelling and unified in its spirit, giving us a melting-pot Brent with emotional depth beneath the humour.

The plays are set across the 60s and 70s, and we may initially feel as if we have seen these characters before: the Irish girl in “trouble”, the footloose Caribbean father, the grafting Indian family. But the quality of writing and the universally superb cast (with the actors doubling up in parts across the three plays) give them fierce life.

Music and song features in each play, with stunning composition and sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, and the musical interludes have a crisp, clear power, while Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey’s airy set (a telephone box here, an Enoch Powell poster there) speaks eloquently with its economy.

A gorgeous Irish song is sung solo by the cleaner Aoife (Claire Keenan) in the first play, by Buffini, which has a beguiling romantic twist and a nicely crafted script (London’s sky is the colour of tea and the abortionist that Aoife visits has eyes like rocks).

Williams’ heart-wringing Life of Riley is the strongest story of the night. Paulette (Harmony Rose Bremner) is a strong, prickly and slightly lost teenager meeting the father, Riley (Chris Tummings), who abandoned her mother years ago to follow his love of performing reggae music. Their exchanges are hard and unyielding – she refuses to forgive, he to feel guilty – until a flaring connection through music. Bremner and Tummings sing as sensationally as they act, and the writing captures the philosophical tension between family responsibilities and personal freedom with nuance. Both father and daughter stories are brought out with delicacy, and with no final judgment of either.

El-Bushra’s tale of the Grunwick factory uprising over poor working conditions, and the dynamism of the Indian women from east Africa who mobilised to make it happen, is tethered to the family life of Anjali (Natasha Jayetileke), whose husband wants her to keep her head down and carry on working. It feels clunkier than the two stories that come before, with Goodness Gracious Me-style comic characterisation at times, but is an inspired excavation of a local story with a rousing musical ending.

There are heavy helpings of sentimentality and a roaring romance across all three plays but with an emotional truth within. Each contains the possibility of a bleak ending but this is averted in place of hope and celebration of immigrant life. It is theatre with a big, warm heart.

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