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.