Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre – until 26 May 2018
Guest reviewer: Michael Adair
Well, this is timely. In the shadow of Windrush, a play immerses us in the colourful traditions of Caribbean funeral culture but unites even the uninitiated in a shared understanding of grief and family.
Nine Night is a sensational debut written by Natasha Gordon and directed by Roy Alexander Weise. We meet Lorraine and her daughter Anita as they are taking care of Gloria, Lorraine’s dying mother. Gloria is of the Windrush generation who came to the UK 70 years ago, looking for work and opportunity. When Gloria passes, the dark and quiet household is transformed into an explosion of light, colour, food and music. You can smell supper simmering on the hob as the family dances into the kitchen, the table soon covered in bottles of rum, flowers and a feast as they begin the traditional Jamaican Nine Night wake where family and friends drink, dance and eat to share condolences and celebrate the life of their departed loved one.
The play takes place in Gloria’s kitchen, a set by Rajha Shakiry which pays hugely satisfying attention to detail – from the tropical yellow wallpaper to the rickety kitchen drawers, it all feels real; it has been lived in by this family. From the kitchen, we hear music from the adjacent sitting room, the throbbing bass of reggae music and the busy chatter of voices. We are told the house is full of strangers, all here to join in the festivities. We are introduced to Great Aunt Maggie and Uncle Vince; the former an utterly glorious performance from Cecilia Noble, a domineering matriarch, defiantly rooted in her Jamaican traditions as she criticises and irritates her family relentlessly. Her sassy patois serves up many of the funniest lines of the evening as she boasts that her bush tea recipe can cure diabetes and that her cousin simply must be buried in a new wig, or else she’ll ‘frighten Jesus’.
But whilst there is much to amuse in this very funny play, it is ultimately a reflection on grief. The loss of Gloria brings about fissures in an already dysfunctional and disparate family unit. Franc Ashman is superb as Lorraine – tensing and shuddering with annoyance at the cringe-inducing insensitivities uttered by her family; not least by her brother, Robert, another terrific performance by Oliver Alvin-Wilson. Robert is coping with his mother’s death in the way that men do best: by bottling up his emotions until they explode as anger and frustration, antagonising his niece and being cruel to his sister. His grief can also be glimpsed behind the veils of a drunken joke shared with the only other man in the play, Uncle Vince, played by Ricky Fearon.
It is Gordon’s mastery of the family dynamic and relationships that makes this play such a spell-binding experience. There is a sense that this is what all families are like: an assortment of disparate personalities, everyone rolling their eyes and attempting to get along whilst having been steamrollered by their grief. This becomes all the more poignant when set against the most contradictory of backgrounds – all of these people are suffering, yet the music is still blaring and the rum is still flowing. It’s breath-taking.
There simply isn’t enough theatre like this. Poignant, authentic, stunning.
nationaltheatre.org.uk to 12 may