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Posts Tagged ‘Cecilia Noble’

Writer / director Alexander Zeldin’s last play LOVE, about homelessness, also in the Dorfman Theatre at the National, had a huge impact on me. Although I knew what was happening to our welfare system, it confronted me with the consequences very vividly in an emotional rollercoaster that made me sad, angry and ashamed. This is a companion piece, very much in the same style.

Hazel is a volunteer running a drop-in centre providing a hot meal to anyone who needs one, but it becomes much more than that. There’s a choir, with it’s temporary choirmaster Mason, who also helps with the lunches, and advice, counselling, companionship, and belonging provided by Hazel, a woman brimming with compassion and a heart of gold. Just about everything the state no longer provides, in fact.

One of the main threads in the play involves Beth, whose daughter has been taken into care, and her sixteen-year-old son, who’s been forced to become the responsible one in this single parent family. Young Anthony and old Bernard live in an unwelcoming hostel which they escape from for a few hours. Karl fills at least one gap of the many his carer can no longer fill. Tharwa and her daughter Tala come for food, but get so much more. A slice of life in uncaring Britain.

Zeldin’s theatrical style is heightened realism and natural pacing. Natasha Jenkins’ extraordinary design places the audience as onlookers in an authentic community centre in natural indoor light, with characters sometimes occupying seats amongst us. The cast, including three from the previous play, inhabit these characters fully, with the wonderful Cecilia Noble as Hazel, the heart of the piece in every sense, Nick Holder excellent as the very complex Mason, and an empathetic performance from Alan Williams as Bernard.

In some ways it’s LOVE Part Two, but I didn’t find it as bleak and harrowing, perhaps because Hazel represents the kindness real people offer to compensate for what the system no longer does, and there are flashes of humour which provides some release. It still had much impact, though; important, urgent theatre that has to be seen.

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American playwright Bruce Norris is no stranger to controversy. His Olivier, Tony & Pulitzer winning Clybourne Park was a brilliant and funny look at race and class in his home country. Here he puts sex offenders under the microscope and produces his best play since Clybourne, a remarkably objective 360 degree look at attitudes of and to sex offenders, and society’s reaction and response, something has has been a major preoccupation in this country for some time now.

Four men are effectively under house arrest, tagged and supervised in a group home in downstate Illinois. There are geographic limits for their movement, within which they can work, if they can get it, drive, bus, walk, shop. Their crimes and their address are published, so the fear of attack is never far away. They have no access to the internet or smart phones.

When we first meet them, wheelchair-bound Fred, now an old man, is visited and confronted by Andy, a man he assaulted as a boy, still seeking closure. Andy returns later without his wife for a more angry confrontation. In the second pivotal scene, the police officer in charge of their cases holds court. Her most important task is to present Felix with evidence of his rule breaches.

There are so many issues and angles, all deftly and sensitively handled. Remorse and forgiveness, and lack of, and revenge. The need for punishment but the value of it on its own. Though you’re an an emotional roller-coaster throughout, moving from anger to disgust to sympathy to hopelessness, it’s never played for these emotions and reactions, so objectivity is preserved.

It’s great to welcome Steppenwolf, America’s pre-eminent repertory company, to these shores again and the five fine actors who have made these characters so real – Glenn Davies, Francis Guinan, K Todd Freeman, Eddie Torres and Tim Hopper as Fred’s victim. Our own Cecilia Noble is on blistering form again as Ivy the cop.

If you like your theatre challenging, unsettling and illuminating, head to the NT’s Dorfman post haste.

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This fascinating and rather timely play is actress Natasha Gordon’s hugely impressive playwriting debut. It seems like a breath of fresh air at the NT; the Dorfman was positively buzzing.

Single mother (and grandmother) Lorraine gave up her job to nurse her mother Gloria through her last days with cancer. Gloria came to Britain from Jamaica in the Windrush days (hence its timeliness on the 70th anniversary, even more timely given recent revelations). Lorraine’s brother Robert, his white wife Sophie, Lorraine’s daughter Anita and Gloria’s cousin Maggie and her husband Vince visit during her final hours, and when she dies jointly plan the traditional Jamaican Nine Night ritual and wake. Conflicts emerge between Lorraine and Robert, and both of them and Maggie, and Sophie has a revelation of her own. When step-sister Tanya, left behind by Gloria in Jamaica with her grandmother, arrives more skeletons emerge and the spirituality of the ritual ramps up.

It was clear that those of shared heritage understood more and got more out of it than me, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying a fine play and superb performances, chief amongst them Franc Ashman, who is outstanding as put-upon Lorraine, riding an emotional roller-coaster, and Cecilia Noble’s extraordinary creation that is Aunt Maggie. Rajha Shakiry’s uber-realistic London home and Roy Alexander Weise’s assured direction serve the play well.

I might have missed some cultural references (tip – read the programme in advance) and some dialogue from the most heavily accented characters (and the sustained audience laughter), but I still had a rewarding couple of hours of first class theatre.

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If you ask anyone around here what Amen Corner is, they’ll tell you it’s a junction where roads to / from Tooting, Streatham & Mitcham meet. Back home, they’d have said it was Andy Fairweather Low’s band (born 6 miles away – almost a neighbour). On the South Bank, it’s a 1955 semi-autobiographical play by American James Baldwin (one of only two he wrote) which I first saw 26 years ago at the Tricycle Theatre and again 13 years ago at the same venue. In Rufus Norris’ production for the NT, it seems quite a different play.

Harlem preacher Margaret separated from her jazz musician husband Luke and brought up son David alone. She lives below the tabernacle with David and sister Odessa. As the play starts, all is well in this devotional world, with her sister a church elder and her son its pianist. Luke turns up sick (and drunk), David starts to develop a life outside this insular world and Margaret’s life is turned upside down. The other church elder’s see this as part of her descent, making them intent on a coup. The personal story is played out against the contradictions of this 1950’s Harlem world – evangelical services full of people possessed and seedy clubs full of the fallen.

What makes the play very different from previous productions is that Norris has infused it with music – mostly the gospel of Margaret’s world, but also the jazz of Luke’s world. Ian MacNeil’s design cleverly delineates these worlds with the home stage front, the tabernacle above and the jazz world behind and to the side. The singing of the cast with the London Community Gospel Choir is uplifting, even to a hardened atheist like me, and contrasts with the sultry, sensual jazz soundscape. This does so much to create the dichotomy so important to the story.

I’ve already seen two stunning black casts in recent weeks, with Fences and A Season In the Congo (and there’s The Colour Purple to come in a matter of days), and here’s another one. It’s wonderful to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste again and her performance as Margaret towers over proceedings but doesn’t steal the limelight. Lucian Msamati is excellent as Luke, a difficult role requiring believable sickness and drunkenness. Recent graduate Eric Kofi Abrefa is hugely impressive as David and Sharon D Clarke has great presence as Odessa, successfully stretching herself away from the musicals we are more used to seeing her in. There are three brilliant performances as the machiavellian elders from Cecilia Noble, Jacqueline Boatswain and Donovan F Blackwood.

This must be the definitive production of this excellent play (a better play than August Wilson’s Fences across the river, in my view) and a great use of the difficult Olivier stage. I would have preferred the interval earlier, or two intervals, as the first half is twice the length of the second, but it didn’t get in the way of a thrilling evening at the theatre.

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