Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre – until 26 May 2018
The British way of coping with death generally involves a degree of sadness, black clothing and a period of mourning. But, after watching Natasha Gordon’s heartfelt debut play, Nine Night, which has premiered at the National Theatre no less, I became enthralled in the Jamaican way of celebrating the passing of a loved one.
Imagine a boozy Irish wake and then extend it to nine nights of celebration with a serious amount of alcohol consumed, a feast of fabulous foods eaten, and family and friends reminiscing, while the body lies at home, preparing for one last journey. Finally, the dead are removed from the house for burial and their spirit showed the door. What a send-off.
It’s astonishing that the National should decide to stage a writer’s first play in the Dorfman Theatre but their confidence in the quality of the piece is justified. Actress turned playwright Gordon has conjured up a funny, bittersweet drama that wouldn’t look out of place on television.
Gloria, who came to this country looking for a better life, has died of cancer and her relatives gather at her home to give her a proper Jamaican send-off. Over the course of 110 minutes, we meet the family, learn about Gloria’s past, and watch as cultures clash over the rites and rituals of death.
Daughter Lorraine gave up work to nurse her mother for more than three months, occasionally aided by her 23-year-old daughter, Anita. When the end comes the family descends on her and she learns what is expected.
Her frequently absent brother, Robert, wants the house sold to release capital for a money-making venture while his long-suffering, white wife, Sophie, mourns losing a woman who shunned bigotry and racial hatred to welcome her into the fold.
But at the epicentre of the gathering is formidable matriarch, Aunt Maggie, a real force to be reckoned with, who sweeps into Gloria’s home intent on ensuring her cousin is given a proper departure.
Stony faced, but blessed with some of the most pithy, funny one-liners, Maggie sets about ensuring that her cousin is given a memorable farewell.
She’s later joined by Trudy, the daughter Gloria left behind in Jamaica, who comes bearing a case-load of rum and foodstuffs to ensure that the wake goes with a bang.
Gordon’s dialogue is beautifully well-observed, whether it’s Maggie barking her orders in a strongly-accented Jamaican, or Lorraine’s fevered desperation in winning her mother’s love before she is buried.
We see Maggie’s meek husband, Vince, quietly toasting her passing (with just a hint that he may have been closer to Gloria than anyone knew) and Trudy exploding in rage at being abandoned.
There’s nothing like a funeral to bring out the best and worst in families.
Nine Night is directed with love and understanding by Roy Alexander Weise and the cast of seven are universally outstanding, with the women dominating the story and overshadowing their menfolk.
Vince (Ricky Fearon) barely registers while Oliver Alvin-Wilson, as the self-obsessed, misogynist Robert, was actually booed by the opening night audience, for some of the callous lines he’s been given.
Cecilia Noble, as the intimidating Maggie, gives a standout turn as ‘she who must be obeyed’ while Franc Ashman and Rebekah Murrell, are feisty, funny and fearless as Lorraine and Anita.
Michelle Greenidge, as Trudy, more than makes up for her late arrival in the play, with a compelling turn that is both powerful and moving.