In 1958 Moon on a Rainbow Shawl made a huge impact as one of the first Caribbean plays, possibly the first to be written in the Creole patois of Trinidad, to break through on the West End stage. Errol John, the writer, also an accomplished actor, was one of many multi-talented West Indians to come to prominence in the 1950s. Over half a century later, now the Caribbean speech rhythms seem less innovative, we can appreciate the astuteness of the plotting and the subtlety and ambiguity of some of the characterisation.
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl starts out like a Caribbean Street Scene, different groups of people living in a poor tenement in Port of Spain, all with stories hinted at, none to the forefront. Ephraim wants to escape from working on the trolley-buses, Esther the intelligent teenager alternates between excitement and worry over her scholarship to high school, Sophia, her mother, takes the cares of the world on her shoulders and battles on the side of respectability against over-sexed Mavis, the loud-mouthed prostitute, and so on.
From this develop a series of strong story lines, delivered in short scenes and overlapping with each other, the dramatic twists natural, even casual, with the exception of one clunky piece of plotting when a policeman arrives at the exact moment when incriminating evidence is being produced. Wikipedia describes the play as a "tragedy" which hardly does justice to its variety of tone.
Talawa Theatre Company's production in association with the National Theatre, now touring, is admirably judged between brashness, passion, comedy and moral dilemmas, with barely a trace of folksiness. Martina Laird is a compelling Sophia Adams whose moral certainty is shaken by tragedy and misjudgement: every movement, every silence, is part of her tired and troubled character. Jude Akuwudike is equally impressive as her husband Charlie, the feckless ex-cricketer who manages to be both worn down by prejudice and poverty and given to infectious merriment.
Okezie Morro as Ephraim and Alisha Bailey as Rosa succeed in presenting both sides of an ill-starred relationship sympathetically and Tahirah Sharif is a delightfully bright and wilful teenager. Bethan James (Mavis) and Ray Emmet Brown as her preposterous boyfriend Prince provide exuberant comic relief, and their relationship is an intriguing counterpoint to those of the more serious characters.
Director Michael Buffong in fact draws strong performances from his entire cast of eleven and Soutra Gilmour's designs – rickety stairs and porches, colourful costumes – provide a perfect frame for the action.
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 15 February.