Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet, starring Adrian Lester opened last night (16 October 2012) at the Tricycle Theatre.

Marking the opening of Indhu Rubasingham's inaugural season as artistic director of the Kilburn venue, Red Velvet centres on Ira Aldridge, played by Lester, the African-American actor who caused a storm in 1833 when he took over from Edmund Keen in Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.

Also featuring Ferdinand Kingsley, Charlotte Lucas, Rachel Finnegan, Natasha Gordon, Ryan Kiggell, Simon Chandler and Eugene O'Hare, Red Velvet runs at the Tricyle until 19 November.

Michael Coveney
Whatsonstage.com

…a powerhouse performance from Adrian LesterLolita Chakrabarti’s enjoyable, serviceable play, which Rubasingham (with designer Tom Piper) stages on bare boards with a false gilded proscenium and red velvet swagging, homes in on a flash point moment at Drury Lane in 1833…Desdemona - played with the full consent of Charlotte Lucas’s slyly maternal and comely Ellen Tree…there’s a lot of fun in pointing up the contrast between Aldridge’s passion and the “big house” gestural posing of Simon Chandler’s wonderfully effete and funny Brabantio and Ferdinand Kingsley’s bendy-limbed Roderigo; but the narrative framework is shaky and the dramaturgy confusing…Still, a lively start, and it’s good to be reminded of Lester’s pedigree, if not exactly Aldridge’s.

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard
★★

…Adrian Lester is compelling in the lead…Chakrabarti smartly draws parallels between the world of Shakespeare’s Othello, the 1830s and our own society…Lester captures Aldridge’s mix of melodious grace and bristling intensity. It’s a performance of great depth and soul, flecked with anger. He is well supported, by Charlotte Lucas as Ellen, Eugene O’Hare as the passionate impresario Pierre Laporte, and Rachel Finnegan who switches between three parts. Especially striking is Ryan Kiggell as Charles Kean, the moralizing and sensitive actor outraged by Aldridge’s stepping into a role that he felt should be his. This is an auspicious start to the new regime at the Tricycle: an arresting and sometimes very funny play, cogently performed, appealingly designed, and neatly directed by Rubasingham herself.

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph
★★

…Lester beautifully captures the pained dignity and irritation of the ageing, ailing actor…Lester thrillingly replicates the charisma of the young Aldridge, and the scenes of backstage argument and dismay are powerfully caught, with a richly comic performance from Ryan Kiggell…Rubasingham’s production brings the extravagant acting style of the period to vivid life as we watch scenes from Othello, but despite the melodramatic poses, Lester gives a strong impression of the power of Aldridge’s playing, with lovely work too from Charlotte Lucas as his responsive Desdemona. Chakrabarti’s dialogue too often sounds a jarringly modern note, but she tells her story with clarity and wit and Lester’s superb performance, with its mixture of power, dignity and injured pride, suggests that his Othello will be something very special indeed.

Paul Taylor
Independent
★★

…Indhu Rubasingham kicks off her tenure as the new artistic director in striking style now with this fascinating, if flawed, new play by Lolita Chakrabarti…(Adrian Lester) proves to be perfect casting here, superlatively conveying the grizzled thespian's daunting authority and the weight of his weary disillusion in the outer episodes and the enthralling stage presence and idealistic passion of the twenty-six year old we see in the long central flashback to London, 1833...Lester's Aldridge is wonderfully stirring as he tries to infuse some real emotional life into the statuesque melodramatic posturing and “the teapot school of acting” that passes for performance amongst the Covent Garden cast and as stalks the stage with an electrifying dangerous and anguish in foot-lit excerpt where the Moor challenges Charlotte Lucas' Desdemona…

Michael Billington
Guardian
★★

…Lolita Chakrabarti's text has some minor flaws, but opens up a fascinating subject and gets a major performance from Adrian Lester…What is striking about Lester's performance is its emphasis on the novelty of Aldridge's approach…But Lester also brilliantly shows that Aldridge's innovative realism was accompanied by 19th-century gestural acting, so when he says of Desdemona's handkerchief that "there's magic in the web of it", his hands weave a pattern in the air. This remarkable evocation of a legendary actor is well supported by Charlotte Lucas as his Desdemona, Ryan Kiggell as Edmund Kean's priggish son and Eugene O'Hare as the theatre's Gallic manager. Rubasingham's production, with its blend of permanently visible actors and 19th-century footlights, shrewdly underscores Chakrabarti's point that theatre is forever upset by the shock of the new.