THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Reviewed: Nine Night
By Natasha Gordon
Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London
To 23rd February 2019
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Amazingly, this transfer from the National Theatre to the Trafalgar Studios is the first play by a black British female writer ever in the West End. It’s actually a rather conventional “well-made play”, solidly directed by Roy Alexander Weise, and it is a real crowd pleaser. It has been a startling omission that the Black British experience has been so under-represented at the heart of mainstream theater.
The play centers on a wake in the home of a much loved matriarch and Gordon herself takes a lead role. It deftly explores the various layers of grief and the undercurrents running through all families. Funerals are of course very fertile ground for dramatists and while this may be specific to the experience British Jamaicans, in its treatment of how old rituals run up against modernity, it could also be about any other close knit ‘ethnic’ community which often have much more human approaches to death and dying. Steven Berkoff ploughed similar terrain with his Sit and Shiver about the 7 days of ‘shiva’ in an east London Jewish home but this celebration is more upbeat - a week-long celebration of a life with music and dancing and lots of home cooked food.
The timing of this play couldn’t have been better. In the aftermath of the Windrush scandal it also gives us an insight into the stoicism of that generation who came to the UK from Jamaica to fill huge gaps in the service industries and had to endure not just flagrant injustice from the authorities, but also the constant hum of everyday racism. It isn’t that long ago that rooming houses displayed signs like “No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish”.
Gordon’s great achievement here is portray the emotional legacy of migration with families torn apart when a mother, for example, has to emigrate leaving behind small children for a grandmother to raise, a separation which creates wounds that are never really healed.
Gloria, the deceased, came to London leaving behind Trudy (Michelle Greenidge) and eventually started a new family here. Her younger children Lorraine (Natasha Gordon) and Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) recount how she made them celebrate Trudy’s birthday at the exact time each year when her birthday party would take place back in Jamaica but all with a solemn ritual more befitting to a memorial service.
The resentment of the younger siblings at Trudy’s inattentiveness in not coming to London to help nurse their lonely mother is a sore point. The rather surly Robert is now a go getting executive with an attentive, and white, wife Sophie (Hattie Ladbury) and Lorraine too has integrated successfully but while she acknowledges her Jamaican roots, she wishes others in her family would try and live more fully in the present. The eternal dilemma of the first generation immigrants - having to negotiate sentimental and demanding older relatives.
It’s Trudy and the formidable Aunt Maggie who are the traditional characters here. Greenidge perfectly gets inside Trudy’s pain. All her bombast and being life and soul of the party is merely a shell to hide her ongoing pain.
Cecilia Noble as the larger than life Aunt Maggie commits grand larceny in every scene she is in and regularly inspires gales of laughter with her curt disapprovals and quick wit, all of it delivered in a rich Jamaican patois. She may be firmly steeped in the Caribbean but her evident pride at her daughter’s economic success tells another story, she’s happy she’s made it.
The play culminates in an African infused ritual where Maggie and Trudy secretly rearrange all the furniture in order to confuse the departed and encourage them to escape the confines of the house, rather as if the spirit was a trapped bird. Maggie undergoes a sort of possession and there follows a literal struggle to let Gloria go. It’s a perfect end to play which illustrates how inhabiting two cultures and living between two worlds can actually improve both.