Sunday, 17 September 2017

REVIEW: Dolphins and Sharks at Finborough Theatre

Marking James Anthony Tyler's professional debut, Dolphins and Sharks is a play about power conflicts between colleagues, set against a background of racial discrimination, pay inequality and ruthless capitalism.

We are in a copy shop in Harlem, New York, where African American Isabel (Shyko Ammos) and Dominican descendant Xiomara (Rachel Handshaw) have been working together for many years, becoming good friends and allies against the white exploiter company owner Mr. Timmons. When Xiomara is promoted as a shop manager, though, the balances suddenly change, as she dutifully bends to the requests of the absent Mr. Timmons, imposing unreasonable policies to her co-workers. 

With the luring promise of a pay rise, Xiomara gains the connivance of the newly-employed Yusuf (Ammar Duffus), whose current salary is below legal minimum and doesn't even enables him to pay his rent, after a degree in Philosophy has left him jobless.

The situation becomes gradually unbearable, until the day a loyal customer, Amenze (Miquel Brown), talks sense into them, offering a great analogy between the team and dolphins, that swim in groups to avoid shark attacks.

Despite the poignant subject, Tyler's script contains a number of implications that left me cold. In a way, I struggled to relate to some of the racial dynamics, which are different in Britain, and, most importantly, I felt that the depiction of the characters was heavily stereotyped. 

Isabel is the African American woman and, as such, she's overweight, bossy, extremely funny and loud. As a Latino woman, Xiomara is curvy, opportunistic and wears tight clothes with wedge sandals, whereas her male counterpart, Danilo (Hermeilio Miquel Aquino), is a feisty young man, whose dedication to the job is below zero. He's shown turning up late, continually forgetting his keys and generally not being good at what he does. Yusuf is the na├»ve young man who arrived from Nigeria when he was three and gets bullied by both the Latinos and the African American. Haven't we already seen this in many American TV series? 

Throughout the performance, there are recurrent references to the unbalance between these three ethnic groups. Such a well-defined conflict is functional to the dramatic outcome of the play but is based on dialogue more than action and doesn't offer any eye-opening insight into a society that presents different issues than ours.

Lydia Parker's direction is unconvincing and doesn't make an imaginative use of
Anna Driftmier's elaborate and beautiful set. The cast is seen either behind the counter holding a clipboard and sorting out stacks of paper or in front of it, doing basically the same. The talented Ammos is given only two volumes, loud and super-loud, which cumber the delivery of her most crucial lines.

Racial disparities in the US (and the rest of the world) are an urgent topic that, now more than ever, must be addressed and can benefit from the transformative power of the arts, but Dolphins and Sharks takes a strong message and develops it unwisely. Except for the quality of the acting and the comedic elements, I left the Finborough Theatre not feeling any smarter.

Review by Marianna Meloni

Rating: ★★★★
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