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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
MOON ON A RAINBOW SHAWL
at the National (Cottesloe)

IMPERIAL DIVIDE
By RACHEL HALLIBURTON

  Tahirah Sharif and Jude Akuwudike/ Ph: Jonathan Keenan

A claustrophobic heat hangs over the Cottesloe stage for this poignantly delineated production about a poverty-stricken Trinidadian neighbourhood that – for all the eclectic appeal of its inhabitants – reveals itself to be knotted together by thwarted longings and deep-running resentments. Playwright Errol John wrote it in 1957, one year after John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger revolutionised English theatre by placing a young white man’s frustration centre stage. Here the frustrations of Ephraim, a young black man on the other side of the imperial divide, are caused by different factors. But they create the same pressure-cooker effect, and ultimately rip savagely into the lives of everybody who tries to get close to him.

Right from the start Michael Buffong’s production belies its bleak subject matter with a full-moon charm that lulls the audience into easy laughter. Carefree guitar strumming opens the action, as we gaze down into the L-shaped yard of Soutra Gilmour’s set, whose shabbiness is redeemed by the lush vegetation that springs up around it. The easy banter between the young Esther (Tahirah Sharif) and Danny Sapani’s powerful, quietly charismatic Ephraim is marked by their aspirations: She dreams of going to high school, he of graduating from trolleybus driver to transport inspector. But in post-war Trinidad – then still part of the British Empire, as well as a magnet for Americans because of its oil industry – the restrictions of poverty and of limited opportunity bite down on both of them.

John won an Observer play competition judged by Kenneth Tynan with this drama, but was then forced to watch as powerful producer Binkie Beaumont – who had optioned it instantly – decided not to put it on in the West End because it wasn’t commercial enough. After a troubled gestation period it was finally produced at the Royal Court Theatre, opening there in December 1958 for a six-week run. Yet in a 21st century Britain gripped by recession and soaring youth unemployment, this revival seems more than the welcome rescue of an unfairly neglected drama. True, this is on one level a period-specific portrait of the political forces shaping Trinidad at the time, but at its heart its story of the consequences of economic disenfranchisement rings across the oceans and through the decades.

Citrus-sharp performances from the entire cast also ensure our compulsion to eavesdrop on the lives portrayed here. Burt Caesar’s Panama-hatted dandy, Old Mack, is compelling in his choreographed smoothness yet repulsive as he exacts rent from his tenants while demanding sexual favours from Jade Anouka’s dignified, beautiful Rosa. Martina Laird’s sassy but exhausted Mrs Adams is the emotional anchor of the production, spitting out wisecracks as she watches her family attempts at respectability collapse around her. And Jude Akuwudike strikes a heartbreaking note between comedy and pathos as Charlie Adams, the former cricketer whose thwarted ambition has turned him into a feckless drunk.

It is a testament to John’s abilities as a dramatist that what strikes you most throughout the evening is not the despair but the humanity of his vision. This is not a masterpiece, but it is a small gem, and its shine is ultimately as beguiling as the moon that, though never seen, looms large above the stage.

 


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