Nine Night at Leeds Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse – review
Natasha Gordon's play returns in a new co-production
Four years on from Natasha Gordon's debut play's triumph at the National Theatre and in the West End, Leeds Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse unite to bring us its regional theatre premiere, to coincide with Leeds Jamaica Society's Out of Many Festival. At 115 minutes (no interval) it's a long sit and frequently challenging, but the energy and vigour of both writing and performance carry the audience with them.
Many of the audience may be unaware of the significance of Nine Night: a wake is a fair approximation, but the ceremony enacted by Aunt Maggie and Trudy to free the spirit puts us in touch with Jamaican tradition and belief. The contrast between that and the very 21st century preoccupations of the characters is striking.
Gloria, matriarch to a Jamaican/British family, dies and the play charts the aftermath of this in short scenes. Conflict between the survivors is generational, materialistic, between home in the islands and home in the United Kingdom. Tensions simmer beneath the surface, sometimes breaking out into conflict, sometimes merely hinted at, and the majority of scenes are shot through with humour.
Gloria left the Caribbean and her daughter Trudy to come to England and had two further children, Robert and Lorraine. Robert is a go-getting businessman and is married to a white schoolteacher, Lorraine gave up her job to look after Gloria in her decline – cause of a simmering friction. But what of Trudy? Neglected or neglectful, she ignored Gloria's pleas for her to come to see her in her final illness and shows up after her death.
In Amanda Huxtable's straightforwardly intelligent production, the eye is naturally drawn to Shereener Browne's beautifully studied performance as Lorraine, bearing the weight of suffering without making it too explicit, conveying disapproval by a drawing in of the mouth. As her brother, Daniel Poyser irritates by his business zeal until he suddenly reveals his uncertainty, the unease he feels with his wife's family's rejection of him and their relationship. The issues in Nine Night are always less simple than they appear.
Josephine Melville and Wayne Rollins get all the humour from Aunt Maggie and Uncle Vince without overplaying things, her mixture of gossip and disapproval often expressed by her way of sitting! Jessica Whitehurst (Anita, daughter of Lorraine) contributes a winning note of the future into the picture and Jo Mousley (Sophie) cannily contrasts her absorption into Robert's family with the occasional unease of the outsider – get those dance moves!
And that leaves Trudy: Andrea Davy explodes into the action well into the second hour, bringing gifts, mostly rum, but others with their own comments on the situation.
Even with various familial tensions, the entertainment value of a play that somehow remains good-natured in the face of loss is beyond dispute.