The Long Road South
The King's Head Theatre in Upper St, Islington was established by an American theatrical maverick, the late Dan Crawford, in 1970 in a tiny room at the back of pub. This was a time when Islington was a no-go area, if such a thing could be imagined. 46 years later it remains a key player and current director Adam Spreadbury-Maher continues Crawford's passion for presenting both critical re-discoveries and new work. These days it is more often a receiving house or co-producer and it remains a pity that its work is not properly appreciated by the Arts Council. Every performance concludes with a whip-round amongst the audience, as it must. [To find out about directly supporting this American-originated arts facility, click here – ed]
This new play by American Paul Minx had its first outing, deeper in the fringe, at the So and So Arts Club in 2014 and with the addition of stars Michael Brandon (an American expat himself) and Imogen Stubbs it now gets a fresh airing.
Minx wrote it as a tribute to a man who worked for his family for almost 15 years. Set in Indianapolis in the midst of the civil rights movement in 1965, it follows the story of Grace and Andre, two black domestic workers, intent on heading South to join the voting rights marches.
Minx has crossed Tennessee Williams with The Help and sometimes sails dangerously close to parody of the former. On a hot august afternoon Grace (Krissi Bohn) and Andre (Cornelius Macarthy) are on the verge of their departure and trying to get the pay owed to them from their quixotic boss Jake (Michael Brandon). Macarthy is well cast as the devout and modest Andre who naively expects to be treated fairly and Bohn shines as the passionate aspiring writer who has had enough of the daily humiliations and longs to be part of something new in Alabama. She fears Andre will let "smallness settle in his soul" if he stays.
The needy, selfish family they serve makes their task all the more troublesome. Despite their protestations of not being racist, they make the servants drink from separate cups and fly into rages on a whim. Mother Carol Ann (Imogen Stubbs) is a lush in the Blanche Dubois mode ("I don't drink, I imbibe"). She wafts (when she isn't staggering) around in chiffon, bemoaning her lot. If she doesn't quit drinking Jake tells her "pretty soon those big Irish veins in your face will blow up like the Mississippi river". Minx certainly has an ear for great dialogue.
Daughter Ivy is a 15 year old Lolita and Lydea Perkins tackles the role with glee, relishing every barbed comment from this precocious pixie in a bathing costume. Her attempts to seduce Andre, who assists with her bible studies, are rapidly deflected by Grace.
Jake himself is battling the unions in his meat processing plant and so is not well disposed to wage demands at home. Brandon perfectly captures his bullying sense of entitlement but reveals too the insecurities which lie beneath. There is more to his story than first appears.
The script says 'full length play' but it is actually too short. At 90 minutes without an interval too much is packed in and transitions are unduly rushed. One suspects the time limitation is a production one, what I call the Edinburgh Festival 60 minute curse. When something is mediocre one is glad to be released from it after 60 minutes but when there is a good premise, as there is here, more time is called for to add the layers and nuance which a cast this good could draw out.