Rhubarb Ghetto, VAULT Festival

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by Lawrence Osborne

This is a tale of a midnight rendezvous of a very suspect nature between what, at first sight, seems to be just a dealer and his runner. The story explores aspects of a life in crime and the personal history between the pair. It sounds fairly simple at first.

Of course, it’s not. Yes Rhubarb Ghetto is basically this story, but it is also an incredible depiction of a bond between two people who have been through a lifetime of ups and downs. They share key intersections in their lives, sometimes paralleling each other, and sometimes not so much. From the moment of first meeting these two people, it’s evident they are drawn cleverly and masterfully into each other’s lives.

We meet Billy, a middle-aged dealer who’s been running the streets since he was kid and who has enough front to rival the whole of South End. He’s clearly on edge when Scarlet arrives, who at first appears to be a middle-aged woman from a housing estate who’s doing fetch-and-carry runs for him. But this just the outer layer of their relationship. When Scarlet begins to question Billy about what’s going on, this is the start of a back-and-forth interrogation and deflection between the pair. We soon hear of a mystery character called Pavel, and gradually the relationship between Billy and Scarlet is revealed, layer by layer.

The story is set in an underpass, which completely suits the Vaults. The setting is further enhanced by the traverse seating arrangement that leaves room for the actors to pace and move around according to their discussion. Its also fitting given that the play is set in an underpass, with the audience becoming its walls – “if the walls had ears” springs to mind. The stage is also reminiscent of a fencing piste, especially with the pair verbally striking and counter-striking each other with questions and distractions. There are many smart, social and political statements on subjects ranging from gentrification to the Windrush scandal.

Like a boxing match, the scenes are cleverly breached by a drum beat similar to the famous ‘duff-duff-duffs’ of Eastenders. These allow for the resetting of the pace and flow of the conversation, keeping it fresh throughout. The inclusion of police sirens and the rumblings of trains passing overhead all help create an atmosphere that compliments the astounding performances being delivered by both actors and the brilliance of the writing.

Rhubarb Ghetto runs through 16 February.

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