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Review: Trouble In Mind (Ustinov Studio, Bath Theatre Royal)

Tanya Moodie stars in this revival of Alice Childress' 1956 play about race

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Ever since Tanya Moodie blazed a fire through the heart of the Ustinov Studio in her 2014 performance of Intimate Apparel, it has felt a matter of time until she would be coming back for a return engagement. Happily the slight wait has been worthwhile: by instigating a project with the director Laurence Boswell, she has rediscovered a little known play by the trailblazing US writer/director/actor Alice Childress.

Moodie harnesses a formidable energy, channeling her own passionate and articulate support for the arts - visible to anyone who follows her on social media - to produce a performance that is by turns aggravating, tender and in its final few moments a rousing call for arms which sadly still feels pertinent in 2016.

Childress' 1956 play is a backstage 'Dramedy' which follows an acting troupes' rehearsals for an earnest anti-lynching play The Chaos In Belleville. The well-meaning liberal intentions, as the white creative team engage in showing a piece about race relations of the time, are quickly revealed to be little more than empty ideologies: the ‘coloureds' in the cast are pushed to the side, talked over and ignored just as they begin to find their own political voices.

Moodie's character begins a cipher; we first see her advising a first-timer in how to play the game with the white power brokers that run the theatre. But soon she is discovering something deep within herself as she questions her character's motivations, much to the chagrin of her flamboyant director (a terrific Jonathan Cullen). At one point she utters "I want to be an actress", an admission that these actors are little more than marionettes, mouthpieces of well-meaning but misguided writers who can't view the humanity underneath their political message.

In its scintillating climax, conducted to fever pitch by Boswell, unspeakable views are uttered and we see how even the well-meaning can have hidden prejudices. In a time when fear of race is at the heart of world politics, the play sadly couldn't feel more pertinent. Although Trouble In Mind can be a touch schematic, it was, and is, undoubtedly brave. A sad program note discusses how the play was blocked from a Broadway run as a producer demanded third act rewrites, not prepared to air the painful barbs the play comes up with. Even today they make for uncomfortable hearing with a distinct and chilly chime of truth behind them.

Moodie is the undoubted star turn, an actress who uses both face and body to convey emotionally complex feelings, but there is strong support across the board. Joseph Marcell's older actor is at pains to ensure he follow the well-worn dictum of 'smile and laugh and you may be employed again' but later reveals his reasoning: he has seen first-hand the brutal truth of insubordination and the violent consequences that it can entail. Meanwhile Daniel Ezra makes an impressive professional stage debut as the young graduate who studies his text at night and embraces the method that Cullen's director originally tries to bring in.

A provocative and occasionally uncomfortable night, with a terrific leading performance, Trouble In Mind finds the Ustinov back in top form after a rather inconsistent year. Sixty years after its premiere this play chills in its still relevant themes.

Trouble in Mind runs at Bath Theatre Royal until 17 December.