Arinzé Kene’s 'Little Baby Jesus' is probably best understood not as a play but as three extended poems plaited together into one giant braid. Its three strands are the stories of Kehinde, Joanne and Rugrat, adolescent school kids who all reach a revelatory moment of growing up.
As characters, they’re very different to each other: Anyebe Godwin’s Kehinde is a quietly mature boy who openly discusses his ‘obsession’ with mixed-race girls while his secretly harbouring constant concerns over the whereabouts of his twin sister, Taiwo. Rugrat is the obvious ‘class clown’, and Khai Shaw lends him the necessary charm and hilarity to show him as a believably cherished presence. The apparently robust but sorely neglected Joanne is easily the most complex and Rachel Nwokoro, in a superb performance, makes her a pressure cooker of emotion.
‘Complex’ is a slightly terrible word to use about any work of art, but Kene’s play is precisely this. The first half is crammed with the claustrophobia of school life, fights at 3:30 and fingering girls, along with an hilarious long-winded incident involving a carpet wedged in a washing machine. Then the second – and arguably much better – part is slower, sadder and filled with reflections on faith, madness and love.
Director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s production likewise overspills with concepts and ideas. Not everything works, especially a late introduction of colour-coding the characters, and it’s hard to keep track in places (which could be the playwright’s fault as well). Yet none of that actually matters.
None of the ‘flaws’ or ‘not so good’ bits matter because what is here is this: a massive tornado of feelings. A fucking huge groundswell of hormones, mistakes, loneliness and searching. You feel, emotionally, like you know the story and care about these three teenagers even when parts of the plot are a bit iffy or the lighting design does something mildly confusing. And that, my friends, is why Arinzé Kene is brilliant.