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Posts Tagged ‘Andrew French’

I’m not sure we’ve seen this 7th play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle in the UK before; if so, it certainly passed me by. Each play represents the African American experience in one decade of the 20th Century, this one the sixties. They are all set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, from where Wilson himself hails, this play in Lee’s Restaurant, owned by a character called Memphis.

It’s 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement is very active, there are regular clashes as the police target the black community and Pittsburgh’s urban renewal is displacing black families. All this is happening outside Memphis’ establishment, which is itself threatened by compulsory purchase for development. Apart from Memphis and his assistant Risa, we meet two black businessmen, the very successful local undertaker and property owner West, and Holloway, whose business interests are less clear. Homeless man Hambone, hardy able to communicate, drifts in and out, as does Wolf, who runs an illegal betting business using the diner’s phone. Wheeler-dealer Sterling, recently out of prison, makes a play for Risa, befriends Hambone, does deals with Memphis and bets with Wolf. In many ways, he’s the heart if the play.

There’s less plot and character development than Wilson’s other plays. It’s more of a social history, though of a fascinating period close enough to resonate. It’s like seven lives converging inside the restaurant, with events outside a backdrop, and there’s a tragic but very satisfying and defiant conclusion. I struggled to engage with the first half’s overlong eighty minute scene setting, but the second half was much better, though I don’t think it’s amongst the best of the cycle, despite the ripeness of the period. I also struggled catching all of the dialogue, as the emphasis was on authenticity more than clarity. Frankie Bradshaw’s design is terrific, a realistic diner with an impressionistic city backdrop and a symbolic wrecking ball, and director Nancy Medina has repaid the trust of the judges of the RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award with a fine production. It would be invidious to single out any individual in this very fine cast; the seven performances are uniformly excellent.

I’m getting fond of these afternoon trips to Northampton,where so much quality drama now originates. Co-produced by ETT, this one also gets to be seen in six other towns and cities. Get to one of them!

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In just three years, playwright Barney Norris has established himself as a distinctive new voice. His three plays share a warmth and empathy that’s a refreshing contrast to the cynicism and anger of much new writing. He’s the master of ordinariness, and that’s a compliment. His characters are people you know or have met. From dementia to changes in rural life and now to loneliness, he documents the lives of real people in real situations. This couldn’t be more different from the previous night’s play, the uber-cool and uber-cold The Treatment.

Carol lives alone. Her husband is gone and her daughter has gone away. She works in the Electoral Registration Office. She finds Eddie, someone from the past, sleeping rough and offers him a home. She can’t hide her delight in having someone in the house. They reminisce and we learn Eddie has been abroad for eighteen years, before which they were friends, though the full nature of the relationship is unclear. Eddie is a bit of a drifter, a lost soul, with all of his worldly belongings in a few plastic carrier bags. Despite the fact she has a daughter, home and job, Carol is a lost soul too. The arrangement suits them both, but it doesn’t last.

Norris’ writing has a gentle humour, his characters are well drawn and Alice Hamilton brings the same sensitive direction as she did with his previous two plays. Tessa Peace-Jones and Andrew French perform delicately, like they are dancing around one another, with the unsaid communicating almost as much as their speech. I didn’t think it had the depth of the other two plays, partly because it’s only 70 minutes long and partly because it’s a two-hander, but it’s still well worth catching. His plays work particularly well on a small scale in intimate spaces, and it has already been announced that he will have a play in the opening season of Nick Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre – it will be interesting to see something on a much bigger scale.

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