Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre – until 26 May 2018
Ferociously funny and blisteringly intense in its depiction of a Jamaican family dealing with grief, Nine Night is a surefire success for the National Theatre.
Grief is universal, but the world of Natasha Gordon’s debut play Nine Night is entirely specific. When Gloria, the grandmother of a Jamaican family passes away, her London home becomes the focus of the Nine Night ceremony, wherein the local community and family of the deceased gather to mourn the passing but also to celebrate the life with love, laughter and no small amount of rum.
But nine days of a wake can take its toll on a family under strain and here, Gordon sets up an archetypal family drama. The sibling resentful of being the one who shouldered the burden of caring, the sibling who wants to sell the house quickly because of money troubles, the other half-sibling who got left behind… Plus the ever-present remnants of the older generation who never stop fussing, and a secret pregnancy to deal with, tensions just keep rising.
Roy Alexander Weise’s production is beautifully calibrated, constructing an entirely convincing microcosm of this family and all its easy chemistry, and allowing the way Gordon depicts the multiple and minuscule ways in which grief creeps up on us all to be beautifully played out. We never meet Gloria but she’s as fully-rounded a character as any of the ones onstage, given wonderful life through warm reminiscences and hilariously meticulous detail.
As the saying goes though, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry. And the time for crying comes with the cracking-open of family secrets, the airing of uncomfortable truths, the exposure of the rawness and depth of feeling that all possess but few are sharing. A ferocious intensity is unleashed in the latter third of the play which is spine-tingling in its potency and should make a believer out of even the most sceptical.
Rightfully taking no prisoners, Gordon’s dialogue features much Jamaican Patois which offers rich potential for the comedic, particularly in the hands of a show-stoppingly-good Cecilia Noble as Aunt Maggie whose every line and movement is a gift. There’s also excellent work from the battling siblings – Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s tensed-up Robert, Michelle Greenidge’s wonderfully gregarious Trudy and a heart-wrenching Franc Ashman as Lorraine, the daughter who gave up her job to care for her ailing mother, who can’t quite hide her hurt at not being appreciated enough.
Rajha Shakiry’s homely set is full of beautifully observed detail, under the sensitively intelligent shifts of Paule Constable’s lighting design. And Shelley Maxwell’s movement comes into its own with a late routine of bewitching power. Following The Great Wave and anticipating the forthcoming An Octoroon, the Dorfman is clearly becoming the home for some of the National’s most compelling work. And if there’s any justice in the world, Nine Night will match the success of another Dorfman show – Beginning – by transferring into the West End to get the much wider audience it richly deserves.
Nine Night is booking at the National Theatre until 26th May