Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 7th January, 2016
This production marks fifty years since Pinter’s play was first staged but the script seems fresh as a daisy. Soutra Gilmour’s design suggests an old-fashioned box set with a red frame delineating the limits of the room in which the action takes place, while the sparse furnishings clearly belong to the era in which it is set. We’re back in the 60s but it’s a highly stylised version. Director Jamie Lloyd intersperses Pinter’s more naturalistic aspects with scene transitions of heightened emotion, where Richard Howell’s expressionistic lighting shows us the characters’ internal lives – moments we can only intuit from Pinter’s dialogue. The lighting is accompanied by George Dennis’s loud and dissonant sound design. It’s unsettling, disturbing – almost an aural representation of Munch’s The Scream. It works to emphasise the horror and agony of existence for these people, complementing the air of menace Pinter concocts through words and silence.
Max (the formidable Ron Cook) rules the roost as patriarch to three grown-up sons, two of whom still live at home, along with their Uncle Sam (not that one!). It’s a little world of men without women, angry domesticity and bitter recriminations. Into this dark place, eldest son Teddy (Gary Kemp) brings his elegant wife Ruth (Gemma Chan). What begins as an ‘into the lions’ den’ scenario, deftly develops into a ‘cat among the pigeons’ situation, as Ruth joins the ongoing power struggles and plays the men at their own game. Chan is perfectly cast; cool and aloof, reserved but readable. Kemp is good too, as weak-willed, middle-class prat Teddy, contrasting neatly with his brothers: John Macmillan is aspiring boxer Joey, his speech and thoughts slowed by too many blows to the head, and John Simm is charismatic as slimy Lenny, a dodgy geezer and no mistake. Simm is perhaps a little too likeable; his Lenny doesn’t seem quite dangerous or unpredictable enough. Strong as this lot are, for me it’s Keith Allen that shines the brightest as Uncle Sam, subtly effeminate and arguably the only ‘decent’ character in the piece.
Above all, Pinter’s script reigns supreme. Dark and funny and darkly funny, it utilises naturalistic speech patterns and idioms to hint at and tease out character and back story, leading us to clutch at meaning and significance. The sudden outburst of violence still surprises as much as the use of language delights. The play is well-served by this stylish production, although I would have liked Max’s collapse and capitulation to be more visceral and complete – Ruth usurps his throne, before our very eyes; we should be left with the idea that there is no going back. You can’t go home again.
Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Gemma Chan (Photo: Marc Brenner)
Errol John’s play from the 1950s deals with three households that share a yard in the less-than-wealthy side of Trinidad. It begins with a song that sets the scene: a song about poverty and corruption everywhere, people are hungry when they should be angry – it’s an indirect commentary on the state of the UK under the present coalition government. It is perhaps the only moment when the show has signs of contemporary relevance. Having as much impact as an Ibsen play when it was first produced, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl suffers nowadays thanks to the prevalence of similar material widely available on the telly. There is nothing that happens here that you can’t see in a soap opera any night of the week.
What counts then is the execution. Director Michael Buffong allows his excellent cast time to let their characters breathe. There is humour and conflict in the form of spats between neighbours but overall there is a leisurely pacing that allows us to savour the performances. It reminds me of an August Wilson or an Arthur Miller – with a Caribbean flavour.
Martina Laird is powerful as matriarch Sophie Adams; hard-working and sardonic, she is ultimately a tragic figure as circumstances conspire to tear her little world apart. Funny and formidable, Laird collapses into heart-rending distress as the lights go down. It’s a superb performance.
She is supported by a likeable ensemble. Tahirah Sharif is brimming with youthful vigour and youthful temperament as Sophie’s daughter Esther, whose scholarship to attend high school prompts her unemployed father (Jude Akuwudike) to take action that has devastating repercussions. Neighbour Ephraim (an excellent Okezie Morro) seeks to improve his prospects by sailing off to a new life in England. To do this he must abandon his up-the-duff girlfriend (Alisha Bailey) who is in turn fending off sexual harassment from her boss Old Mr Mack (Burt Caesar) who is also everyone’s landlord. Old Mack is a bit of a slimeball and is held up for ridicule. There is also comic relief from squawking whore Mavis (Bethan Mary James) and Prince, her suitor (Ray Emmet Brown) Errol John allows Mavis a roundedness to her character. Despite her loudness and carrying-on, she is that staple of drama and literature, a tart with a heart.
Soutra Gilmour’s detailed set and Steve Brown’s sound design give us a strong flavour of the location and the period. We can imagine the world beyond the yard. As with plays of this type, important events take place off-stage. It’s an old-fashioned, well-made play made vibrant in a high quality, impassioned production.
The play suggests that wanting to better yourself comes at a terrible price, and you will invariably be worse off for trying – which is rather a dim view of the potential for social mobility – which is perhaps true of Britain today too…