I had been looking forward to seeing this play for some time but that can sometimes mean I set myself up for a disappointment, not here however. As it happens the evening proved to be an education, and I am not just referring to the drama on stage.
I have mentioned before that press nights are also open to guests, most of whom seem to be friends and family of the artists and creatives involved, with the odd representative of the great and the good of Leeds. Tonight proved to be no exception but this time I was seated smack dab in the middle of the non-press people who, apart from a lady who I later learned was the costume designer, and her colleague, were all of Afro-Caribbean origin.
Normally it is easy to tell who is a stranger to the theatre by their demeanour, being more that of Netflix watchers than live performance regulars, and I thought that it was going to be the same here so was braced for forced laughter to encourage their loved ones in the show, conversations, mobile phones ringing and bleeping, and late arrivals who were probably surprised that they couldn’t hit the ‘view from start’ button. I admit that there were a couple of each of the above but not as many as normal. Actually, there was no forced laughter at all as the humour hit the spot without any assistance.
What I hadn’t expected was the audience participation element where the odd ‘Yeah man’ was uttered. This irritated me at first, my being used to sitting quietly and concentrating on the work, but, because of the nature of the play I grew to enjoy it as it reinforced the cultural points made by the author. There were two instances in particular which amused me no end; the first was when Trudy, played by Andrea Davy, arrived unexpectedly from Jamaica for the funeral bringing with her, not only personal gifts, but items of foodstuffs, including an inordinate amount of rum, which she had secreted in her luggage. As she took each product out and mentioned its name, there were cries of ‘Yeah!’ or a repetition of the contents of the package, ‘Akee!’ and the laughter which comes from recognition. The second example was when Maggie – Josephine Melville – in one touching moment began to sing a hymn and several of those nearby, mainly ladies of a certain age, joined in. This was immersion in the extreme and a testament as to how the play connected with those of the same cultural background. I was really glad that I had not been placed in the front of the auditorium with the staid, almost totally white audience, mainly of advancing years. A lot like myself then.
The downside of where I was sitting was that I found the dialogue difficult to hear at the beginning as there were a lot of hushed voices, which was natural with the matriarch of the family dying upstairs. As the play went on either my ears adjusted or they spoke up a bit louder. Again I had to chuckle when, during an argument, Shereener Browne as Lorraine accused her brother, Robert, Daniel Poyser, of mumbling when he was one of the few I had been able to understand. There was also a lot of patois, especially by the older characters, which, once again hit a nerve with the audience who were more familiar with its nuances than I.
I suppose that I had best get down to reviewing the play then. Nine Night is the traditional mourning period in the Caribbean and begins from the moment of death and ends with the burial. Nowadays it is not a strict timetable and can either run over just a single night, when everyone calls to pay their respects and gets fed, or even no mourning period at all, which is known as Dead Yard. Here we had the full time span which gave ample opportunity for the family to rake up old grievances and reveal things about each other, so far unknown to the rest. The playwright, Natasha Gordon, captures these interactions superbly, as well as the myriad emotions stirred up.
At the beginning of the play the health of the unseen matriarch, Gloria, takes a turn for the worse and she dies, leading to tension between one her daughters, Lorraine, who has taken voluntary redundancy to care for her, and Robert, her brother, who is a money chaser and can’t come to terms how his mother has deteriorated so quickly. He vents his frustration on Lorraine’s daughter, Anita, for being a single parent and unemployed. She has a great come-back however, when Robert says ‘I went to university and came back with a degree, you went and came back with a baby!’ ‘Actually’, she replies, ‘I came back with both.’ Touché, and mumbles of approval from the audience. Lorraine combats her grief by cleaning the house and catering for everybody, refusing all help except one offer from Robert to make dinner. When he finds out it is chicken wings which need to be plucked and there are no rubber gloves, he changes his mind.
Robert is married to Sophie, played by Jo Mousley, a white woman who tries to help but, again her offers are refused. There is a twist at the end which I will not reveal here, in fact there are several, which brought out more than a muted reaction from those around me.
The final character is Vince, Gloria’s brother, played by Wayne Rollins, who is married to the aforementioned Maggie, a match made in heaven as they both have a wicked sense of humour and know each other inside out, except for one significant secret harboured by Vince. He also has some great dance moves and had all sections of the audience in uproar, when given free rein for a few minutes to throw some shapes.
Apart from the shenanigans in the kitchen-cum-living room which occupies the whole of the set, there is a constant disco happening in the front room with people in various stages of inebriation popping in and out of the house or taking a break from the dancing to stroll to the fridge for a bottle of water – or something!
As with lots of productions I have seen lately, the acting was uniformly superb as was the production. The ability of the actors to have you in stitches one second and then gasping at a reveal or shedding a tear demanded perfect timing, and that is what it got.
Although obviously concerned with the Jamaican way of doing things, I am sure that everybody could relate to how each character dealt with their grief and the intra-familial relationships. Even as someone with no religious beliefs, I was able to empathise with them. Incidentally, my mother, who was similarly a non-believer, didn’t have a funeral at all, she left her body to medical research so was not spirited to another world, just Newcastle University, then again!
Nine Night runs at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday, 15th October, please follow the link for tickets. https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/nine-night/ I hope that you have as good a night as I did. ‘Yeah Man!’
All photographs by Sharron Wallace. Sadly Jo Mousley, who played Sophie, doesn’t figure in any of the images provided.