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Posts Tagged ‘Ray Emmet Brown’

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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Fifty-four years after it’s premiere, and 24 years after I first saw it, this new National Theatre production of Errol John’s play set in post-war Trinidad in the dying days of the colonial period proves itself a classic.

It’s a fascinating piece of social history as well as the personal story of five adults and two children sharing a backyard (and a water supply) surrounding their small homes. Soutra Gilmour’s brilliantly realistic design is atmospheric and suitably claustrophobic, with audience on two sides providing an intimate staging – you’re as ‘on top’ of them as they are ‘on top’ of each other.

Trolley bus driver Ephraim (a passionate Danny Sapani) decides to emigrate to Liverpool instead of settling for a promotion to inspector, leaving behind his girlfriend Rosa who he thinks is trying to entrap him. Mavis (a terrific Jenny Jules) decides to stop ‘entertaining’ the visiting US military and becomes engaged to clownish wide boy Prince (a superb Ray Emmet Brown). The lives of Sophia and Charlie (two more excellent performances by Martina Laird & Jude Akuwudike), proud at their daughter Esther’s scholarship to high school, are turned upside down when Charlie makes one big mistake whilst out on a bender.

All of this takes place as troops are returning victorious from the war, the Americans are using the island as a base and the country is approaching independence. It takes a while to attune to the dialect and for these peoples lives to unfold, but it proves to be a thoroughly satisfying story which gets a perfect staging by Michael Buffong. In addition to the ones I’ve already named, there are other great performances here – notably Tahirah Sharif’s sweetly innocent Esther and Burt Caesar’s predatory Old Mack.

A very welcome revival which at last gets the production the writer wanted, sadly when he’s no longer here to see it. Not to be missed.

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