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The Fellowship at Hampstead Theatre – review

Roy Williams' new play runs until 23 July

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn in The Fellowship
© Robert Day

The Fellowship is a play that has struggled to get to the stage. Troubled by Covid, it also lost its leading actress to illness a week before press night. Cherrelle Skeete, who took over, is still performing with her script in hand – or more often, just out of sight on the sofa.

It's hard to know how much the disruption has damaged Paulette Randall's production. In fact, Skeete and Yasmin Mwanza (who has joined the company to play two roles) are both rather brilliant. But something doesn't quite fire in Roy Williams' family drama of three generations, a tribute to the Windrush generation and their descendants. It is richly complex in its themes, but never quite ignites.

Part of the problem is Libby Watson's stylised set which maroons the characters in great circles of a sweeping staircase and blue lighting rings, symbolising Alexa, on which Dawn (Skeete) regularly calls for the white pop music that she secretly loves. It is dramatic, but feels like the setting for a different play, not an intimate series of conversations where tensions across generations are exposed. The writing is warm and funny; the set is alienating.

Williams' theme, I think, is the way that each generation of Black Britons is forced to define their lives both by individual taste and by the colour of their skin. He resists the term Black ‘community', recognising it flattens out difference and freedom of choice; yet he also recognises that in a hostile environment some definition of Blackness is a necessity. The printed version of the play is prefaced with a quote from James Baldwin: "Every human being is an unprecedented miracle."

So Dawn, who loves Take That and Abba, is also furious with her sister Marcia (Suzette Llewellyn) for the compromises she makes to thrive as a Black lawyer in a white world. She's even more furious with Simone (Rosie Day) her son Jermaine's white girlfriend, who was involved in the death of her other son, murdered by a white gang. Her on-off partner Tony (Trevor Laird) is the child of a Black activist, who was also a serial groper. Tony sounds off about Black power, but in his own family, he is neglectful. "You've been in and out of my life like a cold," Jermaine (Ethan Hazard) tells him.

Meanwhile, the family's Windrush generation mother, who we only see as a ghost, after she dies off stage in the course of the action, never wanted children. That confrontation between Dawn and her mother is one of the most gripping in the play, exploring the way each generation blames the previous one for its own problems; it's echoed by Jermaine's sense that his mother's interference is stopping him living his life.

There's a lot to chew over, and it's impossible not to admire Williams' determination to mine difficult seams. But every time the play fires up, and pulls you in, it seems to stutter to a halt again. It does feel as if it needs the oil of a more settled rehearsal period. But it is always watchable and thought-provoking.