‘King James’: A touching tale of masculine friendship

‘King James’: A touching tale of masculine friendship
Image: Aaron Glenane (L) and Tinashe Mangwana (R) in 'King James'. Image credit: Daniel Asher Smith

Is it too obvious to call the Old Fitz Theatre’s excellent production of King James a slam-dunk? Perhaps so, but the litany of basketball-related puns that could be made about the Australian premiere of this show are all apt. 

Directed by Bali Padda with Aaron Glenane and Tinashe Mangwana in the two lead roles, this is a truly wonderful piece of theatre that can be enjoyed even if your knowledge of basketball (like mine) is minimal. 

Cleveland, 2003: Bar owner Matt (Glenane) desperately needs money, and to recoup some of his debts he’s selling a Cavaliers season pass – in Lebron James’ debut season, making them highly sought after. Shawn (Mangwana), a writer, comes in trying to buy them and an unexpected conversation takes place.  

The rest of the play follows Matt and Shawn’s blossoming friendship over the years, with scenes between the two men revolving around significant moments in both their lives and the history of LeBron’s illustrious career. 

Though heavily revolving around the specific career of NBA superstar LeBron and utilising plenty of basketball history and terminology, King James uses this framing to explore the intricacies of male friendship; how sports bring people together, and how they can be used as a vector for communication. 

Image credit: Daniel Asher Smith

Remarkable performances in King James

The play hinges almost entirely on the relationship between Matt and Shawn, which is written excellently in Rajiv Joseph’s script that provides laughs and serious drama in equal measure. 

It would be a challenging script for any actor, but Glenane and Mangwana both deliver amazing performances that match the script’s rapidly-shifting tone. The two actors share incredible chemistry, making it a delight to hear them argue vehemently about basketball and quite upsetting when they fight over personal issues. 

And it’s quite often that they butt heads. Though they share a love of basketball, they often want different things in life – Shawn is an aspiring writer who moves around the country to follow his dreams, while Matt remains in Cleveland and feels stuck in the shadow of his parents. 

Their differences make the on-stage relationship deeply compelling, and it becomes clear basketball is a conduit for the two to talk about those things that many men find it difficult to communicate otherwise. King James perfectly captures the highs and lows of male friendship, in no small part thanks to these stellar performances. Both actors play these beats remarkably well as they gradually reveal the depths of their characters’ emotions throughout the show. 

There’s great work happening at every other level of the play, too; Padda’s direction is subtle, yet undeniably instrumental to the interplay of the two characters. Ian Kanik’s set is impressive for its electric transition halfway through, and dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley deserves praise for ensuring Glenane and Mangwana’s accents sound authentically American. 

Everything comes together to make King James at the Old Fitz Theatre a taut, compelling play about friendship that’ll both make you laugh and warm your heart on these cold winter nights. 

King James, until June 29th

Old Fitz Theatre, 129 Dowling Street, Wolloomoloo 

https://www.oldfitztheatre.com.au/king-james 

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