From an over-crowded patch of a Trinidad housing estate, everyone looks up at the same moon and dreams of escape. Here, noise constantly seeps through corrugated iron walls: someone else’s music, someone else’s arguments, someone else’s sexual groans. Eyes peer into private spaces as nosey neighbours pry. Tempers fray and territorial lines are drawn. The residents follow one another around with mocking catcalls. And it’s hot; the sort of sapping humidity that makes everything heavy and slow.
Little wonder that those living so on top of each other want out. Danny Sapani’s Ephraim, worn down by the daily grind of driving a trolleybus, has himself a ticket to England; Esther, his neighbours’ daughter, has won a scholarship and Mavis (Jenny Jules), a brassy prostitute living on the other side, is trying to sleep her way out of the slum.
For some, even brief respite is enough: Charlie, for whom cricket once offered hope of a better life in England, steals from his landlord’s business and enjoys a carefree night of drinking, to the frustration of his pragmatist wife Sophia.
Yet Errol John’s 1953 play is no mere poverty porn. By methodically laying out the obstacles that prevent escape, poverty’s cyclical grip, it’s too kindly and empathetic for that. Esther’s scholarship, for example, still doesn’t cover the cost of her uniform. She should be studying, but there are chores to be done and errands to run. Ephraim is wary of the trap, but any route out comes at the expense of his peers. By leaving, he abandons Rosa, pregnant with his child, just as Mavis slowly hauls herself out by making his neighbours’ lives a misery.
In this, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl transcends both race and place. Despite its historical interest around immigration, there’s no doubt director Michael Buffong intends us to see echoes of London’s poorest estates, but his languid, heartfelt production lets us make the leap ourselves. John’s play can be over-insistent and transparent, but Buffong always draws attention to its human side and perfectly achieves the atmosphere of scorched melancholy.
He’s helped by a terrific ensemble, all comfortable with the slow pace, hanging silences and gorgeous intimacy of Soutra Gilmour’s traverse staging. Their eyes glaze as their brains whir idle dreams. Sapani’s softness ensures Ephraim never seems cruel, even when damning Jade Anouka’s bright-eyed Rosa to the quicksands of poverty. Martina Laird captures all of Sofia’s steely mettle with saintly patience. On discovering Charlie’s crime, she steps back in disappointment, then steps forward to find a solution. Jules walks a catwalk-model’s hip-swinging snap, but stops short of ridiculing Mavis, and there’s strong work from Tahirah Sharif’s eager Esther and Jude Akuwudike’s dead beat Charlie in this fine find of a play.