Trafalgar Studios, London – until 9 February 2018
Jamaican mourning tradition, longer than the Irish wake and noisier than the Jewish shiva, involves – we learn – nine nights of hospitality, music, dancing, food, relatives, friends, rackety settling of historic rows and possibly a bit of spirit-banishing by moving the furniture around. Perfect dramatic material, starting with a deathbed and lurching and weaving towards some kind of reckoning.
At the National Theatre, Natasha Gordon’s debut play was an instant hit. So on its West End transfer I was curious. And while it must indeed have been a zinger when the late Gloria’s family kitchen was set intimately in your face at the little Dorfman, there is as much zing in this big theatre up West, and a different buzz in joining a big audience of proper London diversity, everyone together oohing with shock (twice) and falling silent together, in moments when in a moment of common prayer your heart begins to lurch.
For here is all family life: grief, aggravation, cats unwisely let out of bags, tradition, identity, history, comedy. Cecilia Noble walks away with the comedy as Aunt Maggie, truculent and outspoken with old-Jamaica patois, keen to get home for EastEnders with her freedom pass (“Only good t’ing we get out of dis teevin’ government!”)
Two generations on Rebekah Murrell is Anita, a young mother, Anglicised all the way but experimenting with extreme Rasta hairdos to “challenge distinctions of discrimination”. Her journey from embarrassed reluctance towards the “I get it!” moment some nights later is one of the understated engines of the play. Maggie’s Vince is a calmer presence, irritated no end by his second-cousin Robert, Anita’s uncle, who is edgily in business planning to be in the Rich List within years and clearly failing.
Robert’s wife Sophie (Hattie Ladbury) is nervy and so far childless at 45 as a result of issues we only gradually grasp: she is the only white member, alienated by her marriage from her own racist family. But at the Jamaican home’s heart is Lorraine, Anita’s Mum (a marvellous, steady, emotionally deep performance from Natasha Gordon). She gave up her job to nurse the matriarch Gloria. Who dies, in the first act, unseen upstairs but a powerful figure all through.
Another powerful unseen figure (until she roars into sight late on, laden with yams, rum, mangos and more rum) is Trudy the half-sister left behind in Jamaica . Every family has one problematic, or to some iconic, figure after all. Michelle Greenidge breezes in, such a force of nature that Aunt Maggie is almost eclipsed. Until she reveals that beneath her galloping-to-Jesus folksiness there may be a real psychic edge.
An honest and beautiful play, which by being so particular and rooted in one community becomes a conduit of universal emotional truths. Fabulous.
box office www.atgtickets.com to 6 Feb
rating: still five