Thursday, 27 May 2021

Radio review: The Likes of Us

After another week of staring at screens all day a radio play sometimes feels like the order of the day, this time a dip into the recent archive of Radio 3's drama strand, courtesy of the great Roy Williams: The Likes of Us premiered in February last year but has remained available on BBC Sounds. As mentioned by the playwright himself in his introduction, it was inspired by the Grenfell Tower fire, an event that provides both a framing device and a couple of crucial plot points in the life story of a woman loosely based on Williams' own mother. We first meet Gloria (Doreene Blackstock) through the prism of her daughter Sharon (Clare Perkins,) a teacher who's been tasked with writing her mother's eulogy. Having always had a combative relationship with her mother she finds this difficult, but takes some inspiration when she discovers Gloria kept secret diaries. These describe, as she would have expected, her arrival from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation, the racism she experienced, and the deterioration of her relationship with her husband (Steve Toussaint,) in part as a result of those experiences, in part because of his many affairs.

But the journals' real surprise is that Gloria herself had a five-year affair with a white man, Stephen (Lee Ross,) and had even considered running away with him. The Likes of Us takes us back and forth in time as Gloria narrates her diary entries, and over the decades the forgotten London area of Notting Dale becomes a character in the story and keeps circling around to provide story twists. I've said before that one thing I really like about Williams is his skill with brevity, the way he can very quickly tell you who these characters are - people like Gloria, with her very proper and personal rules to live by, come to life very quickly. There are plenty of plays about race and racism but this is what makes his stand out: Although racism is at the heart of the story it never feels like it is the story; that's Gloria's life and her relationships, particularly with Sharon and Stephen, and racism is a constant presence that she deserves better than to be defined by.

That brevity also means The Likes of Us can take in a lot of subjects - like in Nine Night, one theme is the need for parents to leave children behind in the West Indies while they set up their new lives, and not just the immediate trauma of separation but the emotional damage that lasts lifetimes. I didn't think the present-day subplot of Sharon and her student (Makir Ahmed) dealing with survivor's guilt after the fire was quite as well fleshed-out as the rest, but this was largely a very successful play for me. And Mary Peate's production is a particularly vibrant piece of radio; a lot of audio dramas seem to conjure up shadowy corridors and corners in my imagination but this really came to my mind's eye in HD, bright, cold days coming to life.

The Likes of Us by Roy Williams is available on BBC Sounds.

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