Red Velvet Production Images
Adrian Lester & Eugene O'Hare

A new era at the Tricycle - Indhu Rubasingham is only the third artistic director, succeeding Ken Chubb and the incumbent of 28 years, Nicolas Kent - is marked with a splendidly repainted front-of-house, all reds and greens and twinkling lights, and a play about the theatre.

Most impressively, it’s marked by a powerhouse performance from Adrian Lester, warming up for his Othello at the National next year with a smouldering, righteous impersonation of the 19th century black American classical actor Ira Aldridge, the “African Roscius,”  precursor of Paul Robeson, who settled in England and played famously around the provinces and across Europe.

Despite his fame and success, he was the most notable theatrical victim of racial prejudice and the practice of tragic roles such as Othello played by white actors in “black face” when it came to the major gigs.

So Lolita 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, when Aldridge was called up by the French theatre manager, Pierre Laporte (Eugene O'Hare) to replace the dying Edmund Kean as Othello.

The actors are aghast, the reviews patronising, and his own betrayal complete when, in the course of a coruscating show-down, Laporte shifts his ground from defending the theatre board’s decision to discontinue his engagement to an attack on the actor’s style of showing passion without restraint.

It boils down to the “horror” of revealing his true nature, and the realism of his assault on Desdemona - played with the full consent of Charlotte Lucas’s slyly maternal and comely Ellen Tree - is brandished as another symptom of his inherent barbarism. He’s treated, in fact, like the character he plays.

This is the core of the play, and 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.

Aldridge died in 1867 on tour in Poland, and that’s where the play starts. He’s preparing to go on as Lear when he’s cornered by a pushy local journalist (bright new LAMDA graduate Rachel Finnegan) whose own feminist struggle becomes a belated parallel issue in the play as, at the end, Aldridge “whites up” for his first entrance.

You feel a new play starting, not an old one finishing. And Finnegan disappears inside the play proper as Aldridge’s unexplained white wife (he was married to her for forty years; surely some big gap here?) and a virtually indistinguishable Drury Lane actress. Still, a lively start, and it’s good to be reminded of Lester’s pedigree, if not exactly Aldridge’s.