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Review: King James, Little Ripa Productions


“Nothin’ but net” in this story of friendship, growing up, and (arguably) basketball’s best ever player.

King James, produced by Little Ripa Productions and playing at the Old Fitz Theatre, is a surprisingly complex show. Named after the moniker given to LeBron James, the American basketball player many consider equal to (if not better than) Michael Jordan, it focuses on the friendship between Matt (Aaron Glenane) and Shawn (Tinashe Mangwana), two basketball fanatics from James’ home town. Their friendship develops over a 12-year period – from 2003, LeBron’s first year as a basketball player, to 2016, the year he won his third championship.

And just like a sportsman’s career is filled with highs, lows, challenges and controversies, so too is Matt and Shawn’s friendship journey. By depicting this journey in a nuanced and intimate way, King James offers a compelling insight into the pain of growing apart.

Aaron Glenane and Tinashe Mangwana in King James. Photo credit Daniel Asher Smith.

The script, courtesy American playwright Rajiv Joseph, is highly commendable. Filled with basketball references both niche and broad, it offers plenty to those more familiar with hooping than the Helpmanns. But it is also engaging beyond that. It quickly develops the key similarity between Matt and Shawn: their passion for basketball. After that occurs, it lengthily explores their differences. Shawn is personable, ambitious, and willing to escape his home for greener pastures. Matt is likeable, but unwilling to leave his small world or change his perspective on people. The two connect as much as they clash, and Joseph’s script manages to show both of these concepts well. Whether Matt and Shawn are debating LeBron’s legacy or emotionally confronting one another, it is interesting. Though the script could be tighter in places, keeping such interest is no mean feat for a 90 minute two person show.

Tinashe Mangwana in King James. Photo credit Daniel Asher Smith.

Bali Padda‘s direction complements this. LeBron’s love for red wine is obvious in the first set (courtesy designer Ian Kanik), and after a dragged-out first scene, he keeps the show moving at a comfortable pace. Moments of clash, such as when Matt and Shawn fight over the latter’s decision to pursue a screenwriting career in Los Angeles, are given time to have their impact. Moments of connection, like when LeBron’s decision to change basketball teams was announced, are an energetic back-and-forth of jokes and sports banter. A mid-performance dance number, which the actors perform while they change the set, is a highlight for its unexpectedness and sheer absurdity. Padda knows the beats of Joseph’s script well, and it shows.

Aaron Glenane in King James. Photo credit Daniel Asher Smith.

Actors Aaron Glenane and Tinashe Mangwana make this show a sweep (basketball language for perfect). Both develop a strong chemistry together while understanding their characters’ personal differences. This lets instances of unity be genuinely heartwarming, while making instances of dispute fully understandable. Some accent drops notwithstanding, their discussions seem authentic – which makes the ebbs of their friendship hurt the most. Glenane and Mangwana show that growing apart is hard, but full separation is not necessary. Old friends are friends for a reason.

Aaron Glenane and Tinashe Mangwana in King James. Photo credit Daniel Asher Smith.

Ultimately, King James uses sport to explore human connection. By combining humour with authenticity, it explores this connection with nuance. Add knowledgable direction and a strong cast, and Little Ripa have executed a well drawn up play – in both a theatrical and basketball sense.

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