Friday, 11 July 2014

Theatre review: Perseverance Drive

Without the hype that accompanies some multitasking actors, Robin Soans has had a second career as a playwright for some years, and does so with a light touch that shows in his latest play. Perseverance Drive is an address in Barbados where the Gillard family still keep a holiday home, although Leytonstone has been their real home since the '50s. It was back in Barbados where Grace Gillard died, and where her husband Eli (Leo Wringer) is arranging her funeral. Eldest son Nathan (Derek Ezenagu) is a minister, but middle son Zek (Kolade Agboke) was thrown out of the church for marrying divorcée Joylene (Akiya Henry.) But he's popular compared to Josh (Clint Dyer,) who was kicked out of the house as well as the church when Eli discovered he was gay. Although not invited, Josh has come along to pay his respects; and while he's the target of the family's open hostility, the real battle is between the other two brothers and their claims to holiness.

The second act takes place back in the UK, four years later when Eli himself is terminally ill. Awaiting a visit from Bishop Marvin (Ray Shell,) the family assemble again, with no less explosive results.

Soans' target becomes quickly apparent, as the church is not just an oppressive force in the family's lives, but a weapon: The threat of upsetting not just one's family but one's entire faith hangs over the way the brothers and bishop manipulate those around them. Both Nathan's wife Ruth (Frances Ashman) and Marvin's son Errol (Lloyd Everitt) have been talked out of the jobs they love, in favour of also becoming ministers.

The theme of scripture being used for personal point-scoring, while true goodness is found outside the strictest confines of the rulebook, makes Perseverance Drive sound trite, but it actually feels remarkably fresh. Similarly, Eli's character development over the course of the story is quite an obvious arc but Soans' writing sparkles with drama and wit that takes you along for the ride as if it's something completely new.

Madani Younis and his cast seem to relish the experience and really dig into layers of ambiguity - Errol has forbidden feelings for one of the Gillards, but whether it's Ruth or Josh is initially unclear. And while there's a lot of fun to be had in the bitchy, passive-aggressive bickering that punctuates the more dramatic moments, there's also a well-handled comic setpiece at the end of the first act that could have felt ridiculous but ends up an exercise in controlled hysteria. Although harsh on the way some religious figures will impose their faith's importance above all else (Grace's eulogy erases every aspect of her life apart from her relationship to the church) there's an obvious belief in actual goodness, and the piece is not so much angry as frustrated at the hypocrisy of the self-proclaimed holy.

Perseverance Drive by Robin Soans is booking until the 16th of August at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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