FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Ola Ince with a set design of a distrait mansion interior by Fly Davis, lit by Anna Watson, with sound by Donato Wharton and fight direction by Bret Yount. Voice coach is Rebecca Cuthbertson.
He’s arrived in full voice. We’ve seen Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins wink through his deconstructive lens in An Octoroon, his glittering subversion of Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama on slavery, where the titular subject is refracted and dismissed through black experience.
Appropriate, also from 2013, is nothing like as playful. But it’s none the less subversive for taking the white American family play unit, twisting gothic and brushing the outside of an abandoned Arkansas mansion with ghosts. There’s five generations of plantation family buried nearby. And near the river, slaves. The very title fans out meanings.
Three siblings of the Lafayette family converge on the old family home, to see it sold and sift a few of the jumbled contents. There’s the oldest, Toni, in Monica Dolan’s stand-out performance as explosive, judgementally bitter divorcee whose son Rhys (Charles Furness) manages a convincing hunch of defensiveness from her control. It’s why he’s chosen to live with his father. Time and again Dolan detonates or poisons what tentative scars are forming. Yet beneath this at the end, she wants what everyone’s found their crooked way there for.
There’s Steven Mackintosh’s reasonable-seeming Bo, the writer whose magazine he knows secretly is on the skids. Mackintosh invests him with a weary New Yorker liberalism sorely tried by the scent of money under the stink of what they all find. Jaime Barbakoff playing his wife Rachael later diagnoses her transformation into an unpleasant pushy woman – who nevertheless wants to breed ‘winners’ – as proximity to her toxic in-laws. Daughter Cassidy at least, as Isabella Pappas’ appealingly alert reading shows, isn’t damaged by any of it. Brother Aisnley doesn’t quite know what he’s doing (in this performance, Orlando Roddy). Which leads to revelations.
We first see breaking in though the youngest, recovering alcoholic Frank or Franz, in Edward Hogg’s powerful depiction of that frantic bid for salvation and a conviction they’ve turned a corner. Just occasionally it’s true. And his angel is 23-year-old River, Tafline Steen’s child of lawyers preaching a reiki-rich and rich-free philosophy she tries on Toni with predictable results. Her convert though hasn’t told her everything about his past brush with paedophilia. There’s other connections too, between Pappas’ emotionally literate 13-year-old Cassidy in her dealings with Rhys.
Jacobs-Jenkins, like J B Priestley before him in An Inspector Calls, notes that the young can face the dark and collective guilt far more than you think, and learn far more than their elders.
Directed by Ola Ince the set design of a distrait mansion interior by Fly Davis is another character. There’s a gone-with-the-winding staircase upstage right overlooking the spectre of a drawing room scumbled all over with junk that progressively gets cleared. It’s lit by Anna Watson not just with candles and interior but a seasonally-adjusted set of Midwest storms seeping through the central window. Sound – deafening cicadas and eerie wrenches – is by Donato Wharton, and fight direction’s by Bret Yount. Voice coach is Rebecca Cuthbertson.
It’s the discovery of a set of photographs and pickled human remains that finally underscores those purposes, as to why lawyer Lafayette Senior, resonant with a revolutionary name, should prove racist and worse. Each skein works its own denial, and each dysfunctional sibling seems gifted with it.
But it’s a book of disturbing photographs where the weight of inheritance and complicity lands squarely. Initially something to wrench from children and destroy, a sudden monetary value’s suggested by helpful Cassidy and Bo leaps on it. The dramatist does a beautiful job of revealing the one thing of high value – the repossessed house with its graveyards is unsaleable – is an item loaded with blood. And the kind of people who’d pay for it by extension are those kind of people. Perhaps that’s why the house groans, lights flicker, and windows rasp in the night.
The key action of the denouement is initially predictable, but Jacobs-Jenkins adds several including a discovery of yet another item paraded by Ainsley. Blandly exonerating their father one speaks for all: ’I don’t think he was social enough for this sort of thing.’ The epilogue and mute postlude show why Jacobs-Jenkins came so close to more than an Obie with this play. It’s a work that sounds more than the sum of its impressive dysfunctions.
Whist Dolan’s the star, the cast is exemplary: Hogg’s younger brother with his arc of enthused redemption, his partner Steen’s lyrical appeals to self-help, Pappas as the sassy Cassidy, Mackintosh’s hesitation as inchingly greedy Bo; and Barbakoff as his steel-sprung wife all blister the paintwork. A play that can only deepen with each production.