Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Leave Taking

Bush Theatre, 13th June 2018

I confess I had never heard of Winsome Pinnock’s 1987 play Leave Taking until this season’s announcement for the Bush. Shocking for someone who considers themselves to be a theatre obsessive. I still have so much to learn.

Still theatre is always the best way to confront ignorance and so it proved here. Leave Taking deals, amongst many other things, with the Black British experience, and specifically the experience of those whose heritage is rooted in Jamaica. In that regard it foreshadowed, and inspired, Natasha Gordon’s excellent Nine Night at the National Theatre recently (Nine Night at the National Theatre review *****) and, like Nine Night, it used comedy to telling effect to entertain and to make its points about the dissonant experiences of first, and subsequent, generation British-Jamaicans. Unlike Nine Night however, it was not overstuffed with plot-lines and the story was confined to, effectively, one family. It might just be, therefore, a stronger play. Definitely a must see – if not this time at the next revival, for there will surely be one.

(BTW Nine Night is transferring to Trafalgar Studios for December and January and must be seen if you haven’t already).

Also before I start warbling on about the Leave Taking I would also highlight the excellent BBC documentary Black and British: A Forgotten History. I guess it will pop up on I Player one day. If so take a look. You will learn a lot. Black Britons have been part of our shared history since Roman times. The picture above, featuring a black trumpeter is from an illuminated manuscript from 1511.

Enid (Sarah Niles), having emigrated from Jamaica, is a single parent living in North London with her daughters, the studious Viv (Nicholle Cherrie) and the restless Del (Seraphina Beh). Brod (Wil Johnson), Enid’s brother-in-law, (her husband abandoned his family long ago), is a frequent visitor. The play opens with Enid taking the girls to see Mai (Adjoa Andoh), the local Obeah Woman, in her somewhat untidy flat. Enid is looking for help with Del who she fears may get into trouble. Mai isn’t much interested in helping but does make a connection with Del. Brod pays a visit to the family flat and talks of the old days in Jamaica. Del returns from a night out. Brod and Enid have a history. Enid talks a call from her sister whose pleas for financial help annoy Enid. Viv tells her mum she doesn’t want to go to university. Del leaves home and moves in with Mai. Enid comes to see Mai. Brod gets drunk and goes to Mai’s place. Del and Mai have a heart-to-heart. Enid comes round.

Now I admit that it all sounds fairly uneventful when described in such stark terms. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are few plays that I have ever seen that get right inside all of its characters, and not just the main protagonists, with such accuracy, using such volitional dialogue. That is not to say that the dialogue isn’t very rich, and very funny, just that Winsome Pinnock had no need to “force” anything out of the mouths of the five characters to tell her story and make her arguments. The eight scenes are so entirely realistic, and naturalistic, that when director Madani Younis felt the urge to play around a bit, with a bit of dripping water and stage puddles, the audience was, rightly, nonplussed. No need for metaphor when the writing speaks for itself.

However fine the play is, it still needed a cast to match and everyone here was on sparkling form. I adore seeing Adjoa Andoh on stage. In Nick Hytner’s recent Julius Caesar at the Bridge she near stole the show, against formidable competition, as a painfully, sardonic Casca. In her hands, Mai was prickly, found of her stout, and her powers uncertain, but her implacable inner strength offered Enid, and Viv, in very different ways, succour. Wil Johnson, with his nostalgic reminiscences of his early years in Jamaica, showed how Brod had never reconciled himself to his new home and offered a clear, and moving, reason why he stayed.

Seraphina Beh was excellent before on this very stage in James Fritz’s Parliament Square (Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****) and she repeated the trick here revealing the self-doubt that lay beneath Dels rebellious exterior. Nicholle Cherrie had less overt opportunity to flesh out Viv, (since Leave Taking is drawn in part from Winsome Pinnock’s own North London upbringing I assume this is the character closest to her young self), but still showed us the frustration that can stunt the older, sensible, more bookish sibling.

However Enid is the plum part here and Sarah Niles grabbed it with both hands. I don’t think Enid has buried her heritage, just been forced to sidestep it whilst she gets on with the tough business of bringing up two children, by herself, in a country that was, and is, ambivalent about her presence. In the first couple of productions of Leave Taking at Liverpool Everyman and the Lyric Hammersmith Enid was played by Ellen Thomas. You might know her from her numerous TV, especially soap opera, roles. She is a first-rate stage actor as well, as her performance in Bonnie Greer’s uneven take on The Cherry Orchard at Theatre Royal Stratford a couple of years ago. I would like to have seen her play Edith. It is not as if the theatrical canon is overrun with roles for strong, black, mature women. Indeed the NT revival of Leave Taking in 1995 (the last before this apparently) was the first play by a back woman on our national stage and the first time a black women writer and director worked together there. It is getting better I guess but given the power of this play, and Nine Night, I for one would like to see a lot more.

You would think that honesty was an easy quality for a playwright and a play to conjure up. You’d be wrong. It’s all an illusion, a story, so showing real people grappling with real life in such an eloquent, witty and emotionally powerful way, and with no formal shenanigans, is only rarely delivered in my experience. This play is as fresh and relevant as the day it was written and definitely ranks as a “modern classic” in my book.

 

Nine Night at the National Theatre review *****

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Nine Night

National Theatre Dorfman, 3rd May 2018

You never quite know what you are going to get at the National Theatre. Mind you the Dorfman has turned into a pretty safe bet. After a painful 90 minutes, (it seemed much longer), sitting through the first half of Absolute Hell in the Lyttleton, I was praying for theatrical Heaven. And I’m an atheist. No review of Absolute Hell because we left at the interval. The SO might have been more forgiving but I can’t recall seeing a worse play. Not a worse production. Design, direction and cast did what they could but I just think there are some “classic” plays, which Absolute Hell purports to be, that are nothing of the sort. A few drunks and sexual libertines careering round a stage, with no plot or message to speak of, might do it for some plummy critics, but it doesn’t cut it in today’s world. We weren’t the only ones to feel that way. The NT has come in for a few knocks in the last couple of years, undeservedly in my view, but why this was revived, and why Joe Hill-Gibbins as director wanted to get involved, is a mystery to me.

And then there was Nine Night. Which is an absolute crackerjack of a play. OK so there are maybe a few too many plot strands spinning around and left unfinished at the end but it doesn’t really matter as there is so much to enjoy from what is wrapped up in just 100 minutes. It never ever drags. In fact I wanted more. Maybe someone could even prevail upon writer Natasha Gordon to create further plays drawn from this milieu and these characters. There is more than enough here to justify it.

It leaves me speechless that this is Ms Gordon’s debut play. I see that she is of Jamaican descent. Which was pretty handy when it came to writing Nine Night. The title refers to the ninth night after a death in Jamaican culture, a celebration involving food, drink, talking, stories, music, dancing (here Kumina rituals from eastern Jamaica) to support the bereaved, pay respects to the deceased and to properly bid them farewell. I understand that many of the traditions have been altered through time and when transposed, as here, into another place, today’s London, but the connections back to the belief systems of an Africa before monotheistic religions can be tracked. These customs are what lie behind the shattering conclusion to the play.

Single Mum Lorraine is caring for her Mum, Gloria. Her brother Robert is an entrepreneurial type married to Sophie, who is white. They are childless. Lorraine’s daughter Anita in turn has a baby daughter with partner Nathan (neither of whom we see). Lorraine and Robert have a half-sister, Trudy, who remained in Jamaica when Gloria, whose husband Alvin left her with the kids, came over to seek work as part of the Windrush generation. When Gloria subsequently passes we also get to see a lot of her cousin Aunt Maggie, and husband Vince. So we have three generations of Britons of Jamaican heritage, and Trudy herself when she comes over, all under the same roof. Celebration and, it probably won’t surprise you to know, recrimination, ensues.

By the way it is a hell of a roof. Or, to be exact. room under a roof in Rajha Shakiry’s beautifully detailed set. George Dennis’s sound design, crammed with off-stage dancehall rhythms is also a delight.

Families coming together after a death, and processing their grief, is theatrical meat and drink. This is different though because of the push and pull between two cultures in the past and in the present, the quality of the writing and the immediacy of the characters. Lorraine’s frustrations at being a single parent and thenĀ  having to give up her career to be the carer, and at having to organise all the celebrations, are universal as are Robert’s thwarted financial ambitions and his sense of male entitlement. Sophie is unconditionally accepted by her relations but still, however well intentioned, manages to say the wrong things. Trudy’s brash exterior barely conceals real pain at being left behind. Anita’s struggles to reconcile her heritage with her home also seemed well crafted to me (though I would have happily heard more from her).

Which brings me to Aunt Maggie. Now it may turn out, when this play is revived, as I am sure it will be, that it transpires that only Cecilia Noble could do justice to the part, though so juicy is the role that I doubt it. Certainly she turns in a performance that, on the face of it, steals not just this show, but every show now on across London. Aunt Maggie is a force of comedic nature who turns out a string of belly-aching laughs. The proper reviews have identified the best of these though you have to be there to really savour the delivery. If you ask me though it is Cecilia Noble’s facial expressions, (even from where I was up in the balcony), her movements and the tonal shift at the end that turn this into a shoe-in for an award if there is any justice. For just a few moments I may just have believed in a a world of spirits thanks to Cecilia. Silly me.

For my money though she is not the best actor on the stage. That accolade belongs to Franc Ashman as the careworn coper who cannot allow herself to grieve. Not to say that Oliver Alvin-Wilson as Robert, Ricky Fearon as Uncle Vince, Michelle Greenridge as Trudy, Hattie Ledbury as Sophie and Rebekah Murrell as Anita don’t deliver, they do, just that Franc Ashman lends a real depth to Lorraine. And she, rather than the prior generation, articulates the shame of a country that, even now, will appropriate a community’s labour, whether freely give or not, but will not fully accept its culture, or even, as we now see, grant it legal equivalence in belonging.

I haven’t seen any of the productions where Roy Alexander Weise was in the director’s chair though I see that he was an Assistant on some masterpieces of the last few years at the Royal Court; X, Escaped Alone, Hangmen and Liberian Girl. He is destined for great things. I cannot know what Natasha Gordon would have hoped for when she finished her draft but if it looked and worked any better than this I’d be surprised. The plot and action work like clockwork. The performances are great and in some cases, as I say, outstanding. By putting the weight on the right lines in each of the scenes Mr Weise turns the slight hurdle of over-plotting in Ms Gordon’s text into a desire for us the audience to know more about these people, their back-stories, and their futures.

Nine Night definitely ticks the National box in the National Theatre moniker. It also, unequivocally, ticks the Theatre box. So now it needs to be seen by a bigger audience. A tour maybe? A transfer? That would count as progress.