FringeReview UK 2018
Natasha Gordon’s debut play at the National Theatre Dorfman is directed by Roy Alexande Weise. Rajha Shakiry’s kitchen set zig-zags a ceiling over a lovingly scrubbed but identifiably older kitchen with bright seventies wallpaper, big enough for all the action lit and darkened by Paule Constable with George Dennis’ sounds off amplifying a party world beyond in the next room. Till May 26th.
‘We don’t cook our people’. Responding to studenty Anita about environmentally friendly crems, her aunt Maggie summarises a half-buried heritage. It’s one Anita will unearth beyond her modish worry that leaving someone upstairs is ‘really bad karma’. You get that Nine Night’s almost screamingly funny. And as explosive.
Remarkable plays often choose their moment then transcend – even obliterate – it. Natasha Gordon’s debut play at the National Theatre Dorfman directed by Roy Alexande Weise carries a programme article on the Windrush generation, replete with stock photos days after the Windrush scandal broke.
However Gordon’s superbly poised work addresses such elements obliquely. For instance, in the prejudice faced by the one white character reporting a valedictory phone-call with an offstage mother, and her husband’s reaction. And in the pull between traditions and new cultural assumptions layered in the same generation, let alone how these mutate in the next two.
Rajha Shakiry’s kitchen set allows none of this to escape. We’re colourfully directed into a scenic rift. Shakiry zig-zags a ceiling over a lovingly scrubbed but identifiably older kitchen with bright seventies wallpaper, big enough for all the action lit and darkened by Paule Constable with George Dennis’ sounds off amplifying a party world beyond in the next room. There’s stairs behind but the neat construction fillets everything into a bright rhomboid, squaring off everything else.
Nine Night is the traditional Jamaican last night of days of commemorating the living dead – people who remain alive so long as someone recalls them. On the ninth night they leave the house. As we open, Gloria’s nearing her time upstairs, and her granddaughter Anita’s fixing her a sugar hit. At twenty-three (and mother of a nine-month daughter) Anita’s an activist who scarcely knows her grandmother’s heritage. Rebekah Murrell enacts Anita’s re-engagement from trendy rationalist to someone inclusive enough to hold beliefs in balance with a lit-up brightness that animates around more massively developed journeys. One of Anita’s blips is a blink of unbelief in someone’s pregnancy.
Her mother Lorraine (Franc Ashman) and brother Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) are Gloria’s children by the long-departed Alvin, but back in Jamaica her eldest Trudy, left behind, hovers in resentment. Robert too, sharp-dealing and too desperate to be wholly believed, has so little time for pieties that he wants to sell Gloria’s house the family home right away. Alvin-Wilson’s coiled temper hides something, and Gordon knows what to do with it.
Gordon’s assurance is even more notable in building up put-upon Lorraine – the one who’s nursed her mother. Her muted grief’s swamped by relatives naturally invasive, even dismissive and resentful of Lorraine’s sacrifice. Families work like that.
Paradoxically it’s Robert’s teacher and yoga-affirming wife Sophie, whose connection with Gloria and Lorraine takes on the quality of someone seeking – often gaining – acceptance within her married relations’ community. The couple’s reckoning moment reveals a mainspring too. Sophie’s calling her long-estranged racist mother opens up Robert’s searing as well as her own. Her mother’s unbelievable last words are reported by Sophie as ‘quite witty, for her.’
If the conflicts between siblings Lorraine the coper and Robert the can’t-do capitalist detonate the play – especially when Lorraine’s incensed enough to betray a secret – there’s opportunity for each character to set their own fire-fights. There’s one around the eulogy, allotted to the absent half-sister Trudy, whose late entrance is one of the play’s coups. In her large vacuum-packed absence an implosion of tempers gusts around for a resolution.
There’s Cecilia Noble’s domineering Aunt Maggie, convinced her spice chicken soup would cure all this cancer nonsense if Gloria was only back in Jamaica. ‘Rosemary boil up de leaf dem; chamomile, cerasee, duppy-gun and donkey-weed… You tell me where dat diabetes is now?’ Yet she rushes off for Eastenders: ‘Big tings are gawn in the Queen Vic tonight’. Noble’s force of Maggie fills the room with a walking stick wielded like a baton to her literally shape-shifting the kitchen with Trudy, to her refusal to cede one jot of her heritage linguistically or culturally. This admirable defiance though is another slow fade Gordon explores as itself deracinated.
Her ex-RAF husband Vince (Ricky Fearon) cuts a dignified figure, not just in offering a poem (he’s never written one) but in flatly refusing Robert’s strong-arm attempts to have him invest in a high-risk scheme. Gordon’s keen not to leave any character stranded and left alone, Fearon’s moving and interrupted poem (since he really can write) provides one of those still centres that punctuate Nine Night.
Michelle Greenidge’s Trudy first apparates out of the night inducing a scream from Lorraine, but bears gifts of dresses and necklaces as well as rum in every other word. It’s an assumption born of broken entitlement and betrayal: Gloria abandoned her Trudy feels, never returning but settling and having more children. Never mind the details are contested. Beyond the gifts to Anita, her daughter and Sophie (whose bonding gambit ‘my black woman’s arse’ endears her immediately). Trudy’s realisations about some people and her feelings about Gloria also catalyise the denouement.
Ashman’s great moment comes where the protagonists scale rituals to overpower disbelief, providing a climax as unpredictable as it’s inevitable, when glimpsed fissures yawn up their dead who come it seems to judge the living. And the living won’t take it any more.
There are a few moments when you realize the programme’s explained relationships the drama hasn’t; it’s the only minor caveat in this stunning debut which might have added five to ten minutes to unskein the loaded potential. There’s no danger of a drop in energy. Gordon emerges as a playwright whose capacity to balance seven characters in profound ambivalence – and shuddering proximity – to each other is both thrilling and wholly assured. This is someone who can already orchestrate many strands and voices to major themes. Anything Gordon does now must be keenly anticipated.