Paul T Davies reviews Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night now playing at the Trafalgar Studios.
Trafalgar Studios 1
With the National Theatre transfer of Nine Night, Natasha Gordon becomes the first living British black playwright to have a play produced in the West End. That alone is cause for celebration, but the fact that her play is a magnificent celebration of family, the ties that bind, the hands that support, is cause for extended celebration. When the family matriarch, Gloria, dies, nine nights of wake are arranged to celebrate her life and help her pass into the next world. Like all families, enforced time together creates tensions, opens old wounds, allows memories to flow, and also lends love and support to the grieving. Gordon’s play may have at its centre a death and a wake, but the play thrums with life, its heart beating in time with the beats of the fantastic score and sound design.
This is an ensemble of casting director’s dreams. Gordon herself is the quiet, strong, centre of the play as Lorraine, who nursed her mother until the end, who now has to host the nine nights of wake while immersed in her own grief. Desperate to see her mother before she passes, (Gloria has appeared in the dreams of other family members), hers is a beautifully dignified performance, leading us skilfully to the final passage when Lorraine can no longer contain her feelings. Cecilia Noble gives the performance of the West End at the moment as Aunt Maggie. We all have an Aunt Maggie, whatever the ethnicity of your family. She is the one that doesn’t visit often, but in one look can make you understand that your mother has failed as a housewife, failed to bring you up properly, and her opinion is given without filter. (Mine was Auntie Rosie.) From the moment Noble appears, the audience recognised her immediately and greeted her with warm laughter, and she steals the show with perfect timing and, ultimately, a caring heart. When she channels the spirit of Gloria in the final scene, it is gripping and moving, a million miles away from caricature. As returning daughter Trudy, the one left behind in Jamaica by Gloria, Michelle Greendidge is brassy, loud, and hilariously direct, equally moving when years of resentment break through. Karl Collins is a wonderful Uncle Vince, the peace maker, Oliver Alvin-Wilson suitably slippery as Robert, whose business is in trouble and is trying desperately to raise funds, Hattie Ladbury skilfully avoids stereotype as Robert’s white girlfriend, she gives as good as she gets in the face of Trudy’s prejudices, and Rebekah Murrell excellent as politically motivated Anita, who finds the heart within her family is more comforting than she assumes.
The script, (astonishingly Noble’s debut play), is assured, with recognisable characters and drawn from lived experience, is given an excellent production by director Roy Alexander Weise. It’s true that the subplot of Robert’s desperate pleas to save his business through dodgy deals is under developed, and Anita’s political activism does fade. But this mattered little to me as I laughed and cried with this incredible, real, family. It’s also worth noting that the play is deeply respectful of faith, too often a soft target. However and whoever you spend the festive season with, make time to spend it with Lorraine, Aunt Maggie and her kin. They will warm the cockles of your jaded heart.