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Michael Coveney: Black theatre explosion and high summer lift-off

By • London

I cannot remember a time when there were four such amazing and powerful "black theatre" shows readily available to London theatregoers in one single summer. It's almost enough to make you fold up the sun-bed, pack away the tanning lotion and head for the National, the Duchess, the Menier Chocolate Factory and Young Vic.

And all of these productions pack a powerful, informative punch as well as supplying a high octane theatrical experience. At the National, James Baldwin's The Amen Corner has been unforgettably restored by director Rufus Norris as a hymn to the truth about religion in Harlem in the 1950s. At the Duchess, August Wilson's Fences documents a parallel situation of tragedy and racial resilience in the same decade up country in Pittsburgh.

And now, this week, we've had in The Color Purple at the Menier, a chronicle of oppression and feminist fight back in a pulsating musical set in the Deep South in the first half of last century. And, last night, the European premiere of A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic, an explosive historical epic of African politics in 1960.

Chiewetel Ejiofor in A Season in the Congo
Chiewetel Ejiofor in A Season in the Congo
There are things in common here: the distance between the spectators and the events described, creating sharp and telling historical perspective. The distance from Britain. For British black audiences, this may make the theatre tingle with a sense of digging deep into family roots, the recognition of comparable experience, even a feeling of solidarity. For white audiences, there's that familiar liberal sense of wriggling between guilt, cultural day-tripping and exotic enjoyment.

But here's another thing. These four shows have created already the short list for best actor awards at the end of the year, and not one of them should be denied: Lenny Henry in Fences, Marianne Jean-Baptiste in The Amen Corner, Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple and Chiewetel Ejiofor in A Season in the Congo. I said last month that Lenny Henry's was the single must-see performance in town. I will modify that to say that all four actors in all four shows are simply unmissable.

See also: Giles Terera on marking 50 years of black artists at the National Theatre

Once you've seen all four, head back out into the sunshine, by all means. I've already alluded to the high summer pleasures of Opera Holland Park - London's third opera venue after Covent Garden and the ENO, but outdoors, under a huge white canopy, with a totally visible orchestra - and Oliver Platt's fine revival of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, which closed last weekend, was a musical delight from start to finish, conducted by young Matthew Waldren who, when even younger, sang in the last revival of the same opera in Holland Park.

I say "from start to finish" deliberately because this work is best known for its brilliant overture, the rousing duet of friendship early in the first act and a beautiful, lyrical aria soon after that. I'd not heard the opera since Philip Prowse's colourful and sexy production for ENO and Opera North 20 years ago; it's a minefield of treasures, continuously interesting and full of echoes and insidiously recurring leitmotifs.

And next week Opera Holland Park launches yet another version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for children. I'm intrigued by the extracts of the music I've heard, written by Will Todd, with a libretto by Maggie Gottlieb which makes a new narrative of both Alice books, so that we will get all the familiar characters from Alice in Wonderland as well as White Knight, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Humpty Dumpty from Alice Through the Looking Glass.

The premiere takes place this weekend on the Yucca Lawn in the park, and I hope to cut along to a matinee (all performances are at 3pm) on Tuesday as an early birthday treat. My actual birthday treat will be the following night's Prom in the Albert Hall.

It's that time of year, isn't it, an end-of-term "school's out" mood that I guess was heralded as much by Andy Murray's Wimbledon triumph as the change in the weather. And, in that spirit, I'm taking myself off tomorrow to watch the start of the second Test Match between England and Australia at Lord's.

Most cricket fans - and that includes most sensible people who work in the theatre - have barely recovered from the white knuckle ride that was the first Test at Nottingham, which England won by a mere 14 runs after four and a half days of see-saw, dynamic and totally thrilling cricket. And not least of the pleasures of Test Match Special on the radio - the ball-by-ball commentary on BBC Radio Five Sports Extra that has the best public conversations about anything at all on the airwaves - was the interview in the lunch break one day with Rafe Spall, soon to appear on Broadway with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in cricket nut Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

I say I'm going to Lord's. I'm actually going to my friend Susan Angel's flat in St John's Wood which rises high behind the pavilion and affords perfect views (aided by binoculars) of every part of the ground except a small patch in front of the Warner Stand.

But we shall have the television on, too, and the radio commentary, and a great view of the replay screens at the far end, as well as the scoreboard. Susan's sister, Jane, is coming along, too... they both work in the entertainment industry, as does their cousin, Tim Angel, head of Morris Angel theatrical costumiers, whom I happened to be sitting next to in Holland Park last Saturday...

Not wanting to be left out, the Queen's coming along as well, to meet the players in, I think, the tea interval... we shall have a perfect view of her arrival, as the VIP cars draw up in the lane behind the pavilion and we'll be even closer to her in our eyrie than we will be to the deepest long leg on the fielding side.

That fine, lugubrious actor Roger Lloyd Pack was going to join us in Susan's flat, but he's been invited by TMS anchorman Jonathan Agnew to sit in a box in the Grandstand. So he's promised to give us a wave, the old rascal, and we may even raise a banner in his honour after we've sung the national anthem.

Tags: Young VicMichael CoveneyNational TheatreThe Color PurpleMenier Chocolate FactoryThe Amen CornerA Season in the Congo


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