Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath – until 9 March 2019
Lewis, an eminent mathematics professor, is struggling with the biggest equation of his life. Struggling with insomnia, his wife has just walked out on him, after a row about his non-attendance of the Million Man March (and his refusal to wash the dishes she spits as she slams the door behind her). An African-American professional who has assimilated himself into a privileged, white-hued world, Lewis is smart, successful and self-consciously erudite. Over the course of one sleepless night, Ray Fearon’s mathematics professor must face head-on his own shameful relationship to his past, and how much the success and failure of his ancestors’ bleeds into his successful present.
Tanya Barfield’s Blue Door is a dense, thoughtful 85-minute work that sometimes purrs in the Ustinov Studio. While Lewis can swing from lecture theatre to cocktail soirees in honour of his book, generations past of his ancestry have many different stories to tell. From his Great Grandfather becoming a free man, to his sons briefly comic than terrifying meetings with a church minister to his own father’s reckoning with what the past has done to him; for every little victory on his paternal side a bruising retort, for every bit of blood spilt or horror witnessed, a little etching on who he is today. Like Marley come to show Scrooge the way, Barfield’s ghosts are designed to bring a shut-up frightened man to enlightenment.
The acting is first rate. Fearon is all stiff-upper back, his arms self-consciously dangling by his side, all movement composed and considered, a physical sketch of what a successful intellectual should look like. He is a fine classical actor and brings many of those skills to bear here, a mellifluous voice, his phrasing of a line, the ability to pair honed intellect with clarity. As the piece goes on and Lewis comes face-to-face with his ancestors troubled pasts, accepts more his place in the heritage, his movements become freer, his physicality winning control of his mind.
Yet Fearon is not the standout here, recent RADA graduate Fehinti Balogun blazes onto the stage as three generations of Lewis’ family and holds the audience rapt. Showman and shaman, educated slave to violent drunk, Balogun inhabits each role with rapt attention to detail, his vocal register dropping or rising an octave, the accent broadening or generalising as each character takes their place in the cycle. It’s a brilliant display of subtle character work that suggests big things for Balogun. In its New York premiere, the role was portrayed by Moonlight and American Horror Story actor Andre Holland, you could see a similarly big career trajectory for Balogun.
Eleanor Rhode’s direction is relatively unobtrusive, she steps back and lets Barfield’s text, the two actors, and Elliot Griggs clever lighting design- utilising a lot of natural sources- do the work. Yet the evening lacks light and shade. Its register is didactic, it occasionally feels like sitting in on one of Lewis’ lectures and some of the laugh’s don’t come. It gradually becomes a heavy evening, a sense of oppression building as Lewis becomes freer. It leaves Blue Door feeling like an admirable piece of work but one that doesn’t fully leave its mark.
Blue Door plays at the Ustinov Studio until the 9 March.