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Posts Tagged ‘Leah Harvey’

I haven’t read Andrea Levy’s book, but I did see the TV adaptation ten years ago. Now Helen Edmundson has adapted it for the stage where she had her greatest triumph with Coram Boy.

It starts in Jamaica when young Hortense is sent to live with relatives, and we glimpse her childhood with her god-fearing adopted parents and her cousin Michael, who becomes a playmate and close friend. We move to wartime London and meet our other protagonist, cheery cockney Queenie. The rest of the first half moves between Queenie’s story, Jamaicans in London joining the forces and Hortense back in Jamaica, now grown up. I thought this first half was overlong and structurally weak. It lacked cohesion and clarity, though it ended brilliantly as we see people boarding the now infamous Empire Windrush, bound for the UK.

The second half opens as Hortense arrives in London six months after her husband Gilbert, who came on the Windrush, shocked by the conditions in the boarding house Queenie now runs after her husband Bernard’s failure to return from the war and her father-in-law’s death. This shorter second half is absolutely brilliant as we see what these immigrants have to put up with and the trials and tribulations facing Queenie before, when and after Bernard returns. This second half, though, covers less than a year. It’s very uncomfortable listening to the racism of the post-war period.

Small intimate scenes sometimes seem lost on that vast stage, but it’s used to great effect when the whole cast of over 40 populate it and when Jon Driscoll’s brilliant giant projections shrink it. Director Rufus Norris marshals his cast well, with excellent movement by Coral Messam. There’s superb incidental music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. It’s a fine ensemble with particularly good performances by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus as Hortense and Queenie respectively. If only the first half had been tighter and shorter.

The warmth of the reception was a striking contrast with the period racism on show. We have come a long way, even if the journey’s not over and may never be.

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After the Donmar’s second all-female prison set Shakespeare, Henry IV, I suggested it might not be wise to do a third (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/henry-iv-at-the-donmar-warehouse). Well, here’s the third, this time off-site in a purpose-built pop-up theatre in Kings Cross, in rep with revivals of Henry IV and the first in the trilogy, Julius Caesar (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/julius-caesar).

Our entrance this time is through an ante room where we are penned as prison officers lay out the rules, which I can testify is an authentic prison entrance as I’ve experienced it for real at Wandsworth Prison a few times (attending a show!). In this specially created space we have an even more authentic caged prison gym with seating on four sides. After an introduction from lifer Hannah, we launch into the prisoner’s production of Shakespeare’s play.

It’s uncanny how the dialogue takes on real meaning for incarcerated women. It’s as inventively staged as the first two, with only items you would find in such a place for props and costumes. The performances are extraordinarily committed and passionate. A grey vest, tracksuit bottom and no make-up must be the most unglamorous stage get-up any theatrical Dame has donned and here Harriet Walter as Hannah playing Prospero is the beating heart of the piece. The great Sophie Stanton as Caliban is as at home as she was as a Dagenham Ford machinist or a Thamesmead mum or a series of Spitalfields barmaids. I very much liked Jade Anouka’s Ariel and Leah Harvey’s Miranda and Karen Dunbar was a terrific Trinculo. The last time I saw Sheila Atim, in Les Blancs, she was mute but hugely charismatic, which she is here, but with dialogue as Ferdinand.

I didn’t think the play’s story and themes suit the setting as much as the power, control and revenge of the previous two plays, but it’s a great pioneering achievement which will go down in theatrical history. Oh, and the blue plastic chairs are a lot more comfortable than the grey plastic ones at the Donmar, though not as plush as the Lazarus seats next door!

 

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