Sophie Adnitt reviews Appropriate by Branden Jacon-Jenkins now playing at the Donmar Warehouse, London.
Appropriate, now playing at the Donmar Warehouse, takes its cue from some of the great family dramas of the twentieth century. The sort where there’s usually a disappointing patriarch, old secrets come to light and a lack of air conditioning pushes people to breaking point in stifling American summers. Spiritual descendants of the Pollitts and the Kellers, playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins presents the Lafayettes – three siblings (plus partners and children) reuniting six months after the death of their father. Over one weekend at their ancestral home in Arkansas, a former plantation estate, the lives that all three of them have carved out for themselves are invaded by ghosts of the past and they are forced to face up to some horrific truths.
With the house in question, Fly Davis has created an impressive space that dominates the Donmar auditorium. The set is the vast old living room with all the trappings of such properties – high ceilings, big windows and twenty years worth of hoarded possessions, from trinkets to taxidermy. Within this collection, the characters stumble upon an album filled with macabre photographs of racist lynchings.
The existence of this album forces the siblings to confront the true nature of their late father. Was the man a bigot, excused as a product of his time, or framed, the album planted by an unknown party? Whatever it is, it’s grossly fascinating to watch Jacob-Jenkins’ characters talk themselves in circles trying to vindicate the memory of this man. The idea of roots and heritage is explored, and how people choose to react to where they come from; eldest sibling Toni (Monica Dolan) romanticises her heritage, aspiring towards something more than they likely were in reality. Middle child Bo (Steven Mackintosh) has tried to distance himself from it, becoming successful in New York. Youngest Franz (Edward Hogg) has outright rejected his own history – whether this is through choice is left uncertain.
Monica Dolan is brilliant as the loathsome Toni, electric and abrasive from the get-go. Blinded by her hero worship of her father (referred to unsettlingly reverentially as ‘Daddy’ by this grown woman) she is utterly convinced by her own beliefs, self-sabotaging at every turn to remain a martyr to her father’s legacy, no matter how terrible it may turn out to be. Edward Hogg as Franz is the black sheep of the family with a very dodgy past, in a performance that swings wildly from manic to melancholic, proving once again that he is one of our best and most criminally underrated actors of the moment.
Rounding off the dysfunctional trio, Steven Mackintosh is superb as middle sibling Bo, trying to keep things together whilst simultaneously buckling under the weight of every pressure on him. Another serious highlight is Jaimi Barbakoff as Bo’s wife Rachael. Rachael is extraordinarily awful, and Barbakoff turns in an ingenious performance of an affluent soccer mom with a surprisingly poisonous edge who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to turn her in-laws horrible past into summer vacation. It’s an absolute gem of a role and Barbakoff is pitch-perfect.
In fact, nearly every character in this play is pretty appalling and as things gradually descend into disaster towards the end of the evening, it’s almost cathartic to watch them tear strips off each other. Jacobs-Jenkins gives his characters reams upon reams of dialogue that spill out in these great streams of consciousness, edging the narrative further inch by tantalising inch – calamity is hinted at in advance, with the audience often ominously one step ahead of the characters. Despite beginning to lose its way a little bit in act two, things rapidly swerve back on course in time for a thrilling final confrontation, and Donato Wharton’s sound design adds the relentless sharp song of cicadas to the tension, increasing to a feverish pitch between scenes.
The flaws here are few, most notably the fact that there is a lot of yelling in this play, with few opportunities for Toni especially to demonstrate many variations. However, for the large part, this is a great piece of theatre, intelligently demonstrating the measures that people will take to redesign their own legacies into something, well…appropriate.
Until 5 October 2019.