Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Theatre review: Nine Night

Actor Natasha Gordon’s accomplished first play Nine Night takes its name from a Jamaican funeral custom: The wake takes place over nine nights, with a series of boisterous parties in honour of the deceased; on the final night their spirit is encouraged to move on. In another case of a play arriving at a time that makes it accidentally topical, we’re in the house of a woman from the Windrush generation, Gloria, who’s just died of cancer. Nine Night is an ensemble piece but at the heart of it is Gloria’s younger daughter Lorraine (Franc Ashman,) who took voluntary redundancy to care for her mother during her final months, and has now been left in charge of the funeral arrangements, and of keeping up with the food and drink demands of a regular stream of guests. We only hear the parties in the background; the action takes place in the kitchen, still done up in 1970s style (set design by Rajha Shakiry.)

Lorraine does have a support system in daughter Anita (Rebekah Murrell) and sister-in-law Sophie (Hattie Ladbury,) but much of her family seem to have been sent to try her.

Her brother Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) is an entrepreneur who’s always measured success in ostentatious displays of wealth; but the tinge of desperation when he offers Uncle Vince (Ricky Fearon) the opportunity to invest in his latest project betrays the fact that all might not be as well as it looks on the surface. And then there’s the last-minute arrival of half-sister Trudy (Michelle Greenidge,) who was left behind in Jamaica as a child when Gloria moved to England and started a new family. As well as dealing with the loss of their mother, the siblings will also confront the tension between them, with the English and Jamaican side of the family each thinking the other was the favourite.

But the comic whirlwind that kicks the play off and holds up its energy throughout is Cecilia Noble’s Aunt Maggie, a wealth of stories, cures for all ills, and ancient proverbs she’s quite possibly just made up (“Don’t shoot the turkey ‘cause the chicken lay no eggs!”) Never happier than when she’s got someone or something to disapprove of, she’s got very specific criticisms of everything Lorraine does, from the amount of food she’s laid out to which wig her mother should wear in the coffin (“You can’t bury her looking like that, she frighten Jesus!”)

Noble is undoubtedly the most memorable element but there’s so much to enjoy in Gordon’s play and Roy Alexander Weise’s production, which continues the last couple of years’ trend for the National’s best shows to all be in the Dorfman. The play is a very human mix of comedy and pathos, and with the running thread of Lorraine’s desperate need for a sign from her mother from beyond the grave – which almost everyone else in the story already claims to have received - it doesn’t entirely reject the possibility of a supernatural/spiritual element. This is one of those memorable shows that barely puts a foot wrong, with good performances all round but standouts from Ashman and Noble. Judging by the enthusiastic response to some of the lines, there’s obviously plenty of in-jokes for anyone with Caribbean friends and family, but both in the humour and the sadness it’s ultimately universal – my background is very different but a lot still resonated with me.

Nine Night by Natasha Gordon is booking until the 26th of May at the National Theatre’s Dorfman.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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