Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Theatre review: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of Trinidad's independence, a milestone that probably prompted the National to revive Errol John's 1953 play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, a gently tragicomic look at 48 hours in the life of the island. Soutra Gilmour's set squeezes the road and three small shacks into a traverse in the Cottesloe, and it's their inhabitants that form the core of the play. Ephraim (Danny Sapani) sees getting away as the only route to happiness, and has secretly been planning to leave girlfriend Rosa (Jade Anouka) behind and set sail to Liverpool. The heart of the piece is Sophia (Martina Laird,) trying to look after her family despite her layabout husband Charlie (Jude Akuwudike.) Meanwhile prostitute Mavis (a scene-stealing Jenny Jules, tottering about in her high heels and kissing her teeth at the neighbours who look down on her) makes a living off the American soldiers and sailors (all played by cute Joshua McCord,) the US still keeping an eye on the area because it's got oil.

The central stories are Ephraim's plans to leave in a couple of days' time, as well as the latest hot gossip about a break-in at the café where Rosa works - is someone in the neighbourhood responsible? But John is also interested in building up a general picture of what is apparently the most multicultural part of the West Indies (the play was partly written as a vehicle for under-employed black actors) so we see a whole selection of memorable characters. Like the dirty old man of a landlord (Burt Caesar,) building himself a three-storey folly in full view of his tenants' one-bedroom shacks (all three households share a single tap in the yard) and creeping on the naïve Rosa. Or Mavis' spivvy boyfriend (Ray Emmet Brown,) biting off more than he can chew when he proposes. It makes for a very rounded image of the community and helps give life to the central storyline; while the sense of location is helped by Felix Cross' music, played by a live steel band.

Michael Buffong's production maintains a fairly gentle pace but not in a way that drags, rather allowing the drama of the situation to tell itself. The cast is uniformly strong, Laird is quietly heartbreaking as her hopes for her family's future seem threatened, Akuwudike similarly bringing a quiet pathos to her husband, with the crushed dreams of a cricket career in his past. Proof that you can sometimes do things too well, without giving away who it is there's a scene of domestic abuse where the actors' stunt work is so impressive it rather takes away from the intended effect (the fights, choreographed by Bret Yount, are excellent all round.) I was also a bit vague on why Rosa was living with Sophia's family. But generally there's little to fault in the sometimes-hopeful, sometimes-dark story of a very distinctive community.

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John is booking in repertory until the 9th of June at the National Theatre's Cottesloe.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

2 comments:

  1. It seems like people are scared to give an honest critique of a black production for fear of being accused of racism or not being open... The fact is, this play was very slow, the casting was overly ambitious in a unrealistic kind of way and the leading Actors look armature at best namely Danny Sapani and Jade Anouka.

    Michael Buffong or Wendy Spon (Head Casting Dir National Theatre) were not brave in their decision to cast the part of Ephraim and chickened out by hiring someone with "experience", I think it was a gamble not worth taking as it did not pay off at all.

    Martina has issues with playing black women with any kind of class and always opts for the obvious choice of playing them with such low status. She however having been the only native trinidadian gave the best accent the rest were questionable on a large scale.

    As the casting was so off across the board I think it failed miserably, but the story itself is a good one. So I give it a 1 star just for that. I fear the same nonsensical theatre especially when it comes to black theatre if people like Wendy Spon and Michael Buffong don't get creative and cast properly and give our younger Actors an opportunity to carry what should and so easily could have been a beautiful play.

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    1. I like Danny Sapani, especially after he was the only watchable thing about Andersen's English, but I agree he seemed a bit too old for someone who's just now about to start again on his own in a different country. That's about the only point I agree on though. I can't comment on the accents, I thought they slipped a few times but I'm no expert.

      I'm usually the first person to complain if a production drags but as I said in my review, if the pace here isn't lighting-fast I found it to be appropriate to the play. I actually enjoyed Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, and find it a bit patronising to suggest that I only said I did because of positive discrimination.

      The National does notoriously have certain "regulars" who keep coming back to perform, as of course do most companies, it's certainly not restricted to black actors. It'd be nice if everyone went into auditions with a 100% level playing field but at the same time it'd be stupid for directors and casting directors not to use their knowledge of certain actors' strengths and weaknesses, of who works well with whom etc, to get a better result. In fact far from completely dismissing younger actors, as a regular audience member at the National I've noticed a recurring theme of young actors with little experience being given a chance at a small or non-speaking role in one production, and six months to a year later they're back in a different show and a slightly bigger role, and so on. No offence, but this whole comment gives me the overall impression of someone who auditioned for this production and didn't get a part.

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