Review Round-Up: Norris directs National's Amen Corner
Rufus Norris' production of James Baldwin's The Amen Corner at the NT Olivier follows the life of Sister Margaret, a pastor of a Harlem church, and stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Eric Kofi Abrefa and Sharon D Clarke
James Baldwin's mid-1950s hot-gospelling Harlem domestic drama has usually been considered a powerful statement about charity beginning at home, but an indifferent piece of theatre... But Rufus Norris' irresistible production in the Olivier, with a tremendous, tragic and deeply moving performance by Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sister Margaret Alexander, turns that preconception on its head. And provides the most joyous NT evening of the year so far... Even when Lucian Msamati's prodigal husband returns home – and this exceptional actor shows his true mettle here in two spectacularly managed collapses... The gospel and hymn-singing is just wonderful throughout; you'll stand up at the end to join in, not just applaud.
James Baldwin's debut play The Amen Corner is, at its best, revelatory... Rufus Norris has a confident vigour and boasts a fine cast, expertly led by the Oscar-nominated Marianne Jean-Baptiste. There's a deliciously understated performance from Sharon D Clarke as Margaret's supportive sister Odessa. Cecilia Noble's Sister Moore is a lovely study in pious insincerity, and her spirited dancing provides some of the richest comic moments. Touching support comes from Eric Kofi Abrefa and Naana Agyei-Ampadu... There are scenes that call for a delicate intimacy, and others — which Ian MacNeil's good-looking design accentuates — that reach for epic significance. Norris has underlined the joyfulness of a play that sometimes resembles a full-blown musical yet is also a lyrical vision of matriarchal culture and religious hypocrisy.
...once again finds the NT in spirit-lifting form... Right from the start, when the London Community Gospel Choir launch into a joyous hymn that reverberates divinely around the Olivier auditorium it is clear that we are in for something special here... Baldwin wittily captures the simmering resentments among the congregation... Norris's wonderfully acted production hilariously captures the hypocrisy of those who plot her downfall... There is outstanding work too from Sharon D Clarke as her fiercely loyal sister, Eric Kofi Abrefa as her mixed-up son, and Lucian Msamati as the battered but not quite broken husband she abandoned in the pursuit of God.
...Marianne Jean-Baptiste is better in the lead role when Sister Margaret is showing her vulnerable side... In her scenes as Margaret the unbending pulpiteer she maybe lacks some vocal power and physical stature. Yet she becomes a person we care about... There is plenty of humour with the bitchy church politics... Cecilia Noble does a great turn as a gossipy congregant... The split-level presentation gives it all a bit of a dolls'-house feel... I would have liked the church action – which includes lusty gospel songs by a large cast – to have been more to the front of the stage, and therefore more immediate...
...So all praise to the National Theatre and to director Rufus Norris for making this rare revival of Baldwin's debut drama The Amen Corner (1954) such a deeply affecting occasion... Marianne Jean-Baptiste turns in a magnificent performance as Sister Margaret Alexander... Her body pulsating with the spirit as she delivers her fiery sermons... Cecilia Noble is hilarious as a wheezy-voiced, bulky Sister Moore whose seamless glissades from supportive piety to peevishly competitive insinuation epitomise the moral hypocrisy of these "saints"... the brilliant Jean-Baptiste, as she bleakly and courageously sheds the pastor's white gown of office, shows you a protagonist who has to lose almost everything in order to achieve wisdom and Sharon D Clarke brings a lovely obdurate wit to the part of Odessa...
Rufus Norris's exciting revival of this 1954 play… The story is slow to get rolling. Once it does, this is gripping theatre with plenty of pointed humour to it… As the softly sanctimonious Sister Moore, Cecilia Noble… pitches her passive-aggressive performance to perfection… Jean-Baptiste, in her first British stage performance for many years after working in America, is simply stunning… terrific support from Sharon D. Clarke as her steadfast sister, Odessa; Lucian Msamati as the charming but volatile Luke; and Eric Kofi Abrefa as David, choosing between his parents' different legacies. Sometimes it's swamped by the scale of the stage… but Norris's production uses the gospel songs and Tim Sutton's jazz trio to help ensure that this rarely revived drama is funny, sad and uplifting. Praise be, really.