Undine is a svelte PR executive who runs her own company. She is a self-made woman, revelling in material success and moving in the shallow but glitzy world of charity balls and celebrity appearances. At 37 she has put a 14-year gulf between herself and her tenement-dwelling family, even pretending to the newspapers that they are all dead. Then, one day, her glamorous Argentinian husband (slinky Karl Collins) absconds with her money, leaving her pregnant and poverty-stricken. She returns, of necessity, to her despised roots and begins a process of rediscovery. Oh and she’s black, a “buppy” (black yuppy). And, by the way, this is a comedy.
Presented in the spring as part of the Tricycle’s African-American season and given a second run in recognition of its success then, Lynn Nottage’s play is a surprise to the first-time viewer. For a start, the promised humour sometimes seems rather laboured. True, there have been some cast changes, but generally the multi-tasking actors acquit themselves well and Jenny Jules as Undine is as wry, witty and energetic as reported in February. Perhaps the effect is blunted simply because, a recognised success, Indhu Rubasingham’s helter-skelter production has become just a little too arch, too knowing.
In one sense it doesn’t matter a jot that Undine (real name Sharona) is a Brooklyn-born black woman; this is a universal story, familiar in fable: the road to personal salvation is a painful one during which our heroine discovers her true self by seeing the world’s vanities for what they are. She has changed her name, perhaps symbolically, to that of the mermaid in European folklore who denies her true character. Nottage is unlikely to be saying that her heroine ought to feel out of place in the predominantly white world of finance and fashion. Rather, aspiration does not need to include disdain for family or a loss of connection with roots.
Undine’s “educational” experiences include the discovery that her supposedly diabetic grandmother is a heroin addict, her own involvement in a drugs bust which leads to obligatory attendance at counselling sessions, and gratitude - even love – for an unshowy ex-druggie who offers to support her as she gives birth.
There is some rollicking satire on celeb culture in the first scene when a hyperactive Undine and her fashion victim assistant Stephie (Charlotte Lucas) encounter problems in booking a suitable media name for a charity event. Undine scoffs at the news that yet another of them is on some modish spiritual journey. This is matched by satire on the nightmare side of the American dream - especially the self-perpetuating bureaucracy of social services - which will ring bells elsewhere too.
The clever title, hinting at both the core and current meanings of fabulous (worthy of fable and something closer to Ab Fab territory), is taken from a verse in Undine’s ex-soldier brother’s unfinished rap epic about Br’er Rabbit. Flow (Obi Abili) uses the word to mean something between fabrication and unapologetic statement of who black Americans are. The poem represents his aspiration, his means of betterment, but he can’t finish it.
There’s a terrific tango sequence (choreographed by Lynne Page), a good deal of wit and quite a few laughs in Fabulation- but not as many as the first reviews might lead one to expect.
- Heather Neill
Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from February 2006 and this production's earlier run.
Fabulation – to make glorious, embellish (as in made-up story) or re-invent. Well Lynn Nottage's Fabulation, the third and final play in Nicolas Kent's fascinating and ground-breaking African-American season at the Tricycle, certainly comes as a glorious comic finale.
If there was no doubting the serious intent of Abram Hill's Walk Hard and the late August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean - both investigating the African-American experience from the standpoint of the suffering and intrinsic after-effects of slavery on African-American lives - by contrast, in Fabulation Brooklyn born Nottage's play comes at us as a laugh-a-minute bullet. But make no mistake, despite the satirical vitality of Indhu Rubasingham's production and the versatility of the Tricycle ensemble, Nottage's message carries a lethal caution: Re-invention, the American obsession and aspirational nirvana, comes at a cost.
Not for nothing is Fabulation subtitled Or the re-education of Undine. Undine is Nottage's fast-talking central character, an upwardly mobile publicist in the Oprah Winfrey mould - a hard-driving, successful `buppie' (black yuppie) who has steadily built up her own company over 14 years. Her ambition, however, is about to become unstuck. Herve, her Argentine husband of a few years, who swept her off her feet with seductive intimations of white European worlds of literature and music, has left her penniless and pregnant.
Like an unravelling piece of yarn, we watch Undine's `educational' downward spiral from the celebrity-dusted Manhattan to her nondescript family roots in Brooklyn (the family was killed off in a fictional fire when her family name of Sharona became 'Undine'), to a drugs unit counselling session and eventual realisation that denying your roots is like cutting off an arm - you end up disabled. All of which could be heavy. Rubasingham, afraid perhaps to explore the full implications of Nottage's journey with its drug pushers, heroin addiction and subtle critique of white cultural influences, too often opts for soft-centred farce and caricature. But with the heroin addiction coming not from Undine but her grandma, whose injecting is fondly believed by the family to be due to her being diabetic, it's easy to see how she chose that option.
And, on the way, a terrific time is had by all. Jenny Jules gives Undine great style and energy whilst Carmen Munroe is once again the steadying backbone of an ensemble working together as one, from Claire Lams' very funny cameos as office PA and addict to Kogna Holdbrook-Smith as Herve and a druggie-turned-humble-fireman, the unlikely romantic solution to Undine's woes.