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Posts Tagged ‘Cherrelle Skeete’

August Wilson was one of the greats of 20th century American drama, though he’s not as well known or as produced internationally as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. His great achievement was a cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, all in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was brought up, with characters in some plays being referenced in others, documenting 100 years of the African American experience. We’ve seen all bar one here, though revivals after their UK premiere’s have been rare. Seventeen years after it was first seen at the Tricycle, this ninth play (in period, rather than writing), set in the Reagan’s America in the 80’s, gets a superb revival at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

King Hedley II is home from prison, where he served seven years. He lives at home with his mum Ruby, with whom he has a fractious relationship, and his wife Tonya. He has a seventeen-year-old daughter whom he hardly ever sees. He’s struggling to navigate life as an ex-con, selling knocked-off fridges with his best friend Mister to raise money to set up a video store. They try to speed up the fund-raising with a bigger crime. He’s keen to have a child with Tonya, but she doesn’t like the world it would be born into. Ruby’s old flame, smooth hustler Elmore, walks back into their lives and ghosts from the past emerge, propelling the play to its tragic conclusion. Peter McKintosh has built two full-size houses, evocative of the poor Hill District neighbourhood, whilst providing an intimate playing area in the back yards of the houses.

I was impressed by newcomer Aaron Pierre in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, but his performance as King Hedley is on another level altogether; deeply emotional and passionate with an extraordinary charismatic presence. Martina Laird is terrific as Ruby, a nuanced characterisation that conveys the complexity of her relationships with her son and Elmore. This is Lenny Henry’s fifth role since his late career extension into stage acting, and he continues to impress. Elmore brings a lightness to what is one of the darker plays of the cycle, and Henry is well suited to this. Dexter Flanders as Mister and Cherrelle Skeete as Tonya both make excellent contributions, and the cast is completed by a fine performance from Leo Wringer as the eccentric neighbour Stool Pigeon, who hoards newspapers to record history and makes prophetic contributions like a Greek chorus.

It’s a bit too long at 3.5 hours, but Wilson’s dialogue and a set of riveting performances just about keep you in their grip in Nadia Fall’s superb production. It’s such a timeless piece, covering issues just as relevant and urgent today, and Stratford East is a great home for a work like this – an auspicious contribution to kick off the next phase in the life of ‘the people’s theatre’. As I left, I looked up at Joan Littlewood’s statue and she seemed to have a smile of approval on her face!

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Well, the critics sent me back to the Finborough to see this short Naomi Wallace play set in and out of a women’s prison in the US in the 50’s. We diverge again…..

The play consists of 12 short scenes, alternating between a prison cell in 1950 and a room ‘on the outside’ in 1959 with the same two characters, white Dee and black Jamie. It examines their relationship and their attitude to the world and its attitude to them, their race and sexuality. The inside is tough but the outside’s even tougher and its the outside that breaks them.

The performances – Lauren Crace as young Dee and Sally Oliver as older Dee; Cherrelle Skeete as young Jamie and Cat Simmons as older Jamie – are outstanding. They really inhabit these characters and develop them as well as they can, given the material they have to work with, in such a short time. It’s very well staged by Caitlin McLeod on a simple but effective set by Cecilia Carey which doubles up as cell and room.

My problem with the piece is that it seems unfinished, lacking substance with obtuse dialogue. It tells you a story but not the background to the story or the underlying motivations of the characters and has limited psychological depth. I felt as if it was work in progress rather than the finished article. The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, but its connection with the play is beyond me, I’m afraid.

It’s good to be back at the Finborough, though, with new aircon and a bar that’s finally open. Their next show is the London premiere of a 60’s Broadway musical – well, you could never accuse them of being unambitious or narrow in their programming! I’ll be there….

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