TOPDOG/UNDERDOG. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Mdu Kweyama, with Daniel Richards and Marty Kintu.

MEGAN FURNISS reviews

This is the first really ‘in-house’ production at The Alexander Bar, in that the space has been dedicated to this two-hour long, two act play that solely inhabits the theatre for its almost three week long run.

A quick look at the down-and-out inner city apartment room with the semi-exposed window, revealed walls, and wooden floorboards lets the intimate Alexander Bar audience know what to expect; gritty, real-life, kitchen sink drama. And when the lights dim, and the first strains of harmonica fill the air, you know this is Bruce Springsteen territory and we are entering Ghost of Tom Joad land, where the jobless, hopeless and homeless collide, clash, and some don’t make it out alive.

Marty Kintu in ‘Topdog/Underdog’

The story of two brothers

Topdog/Underdog is the story of two brothers, left to fend for themselves in the world. They are named Lincoln and Booth; their father’s idea of a joke. Older brother, Lincoln, works in an arcade, putting on whiteface to be his namesake, Abraham Lincoln, and customers shoot toy guns at him. He clings fearfully to this underpaid job. Booth is a hustling, gun slinging shoplifter with an overwhelming and unrealistic plan to change his life and make big cash as a card con on the street.

We first meet the highly-strung Booth (Richards) as he practices the three-card trick, before a bizarre Abraham Lincoln look-alike arrives home. The single room is too small for these men, with Lincoln sleeping on the reclining chair, since being booted out by his ex-wife. While it seems that Lincoln (Kintu) is being helped out by Booth, it works the other way around too, with Lincoln bringing home food, and his weekly salary.

Their relationship flows between kindness and sympathy to irritation and resentment, with little explosions that reveal both their current and past situation. The first act slowly sets up and reveals them, and the second one runs like a freight train towards the inevitable ending.

Daniel Richards in ‘Topdog/Underdog’

Both Kintu and Richards are superb

Both Kintu and Richards are superb. Richards is totally familiar as the unstable, delusional and dangerous, (is he a crystal meth addict?), highly sexed Booth. Kintu’s layered portrayal of the afraid, washed-up, deeply emotional Lincoln is mesmerising.  Kintu is especially brilliant in the second act, playing a drunk and emotional man in counterpoint to his about-to-explode, on the knife-edged brother.

There is so much that is excellent about this highly watchable, sometimes funny, often sad, and even chilling play. There is also something deeply familiar about it; I felt like I was watching an American version of an Athol Fugard, with its broken people and their memories that trap them.

This is challenging, absorbing theatre. It isn’t bite sized, or quickly resolved. It is immersive, brave and compelling. Kweyama has had his hands full, and mostly succeeds in making Topdog/Underdog an emotional, thought-provoking journey.

What: Topdog/Underdog

Where and when: Alexander Upstairs from 3 – 27 May

Book: Alexander Upstairs

WS