Review: Rasheeda Speaking (Trafalgar Studios)

Tanya Moodie and Elizabeth Berrington star in this laugh-out-loud comedy packed with a punch

Tanya Moodie and Elizabeth Berrington in Rasheeda Speaking
Tanya Moodie and Elizabeth Berrington in Rasheeda Speaking
(© Mitzi de Margary)

Rasheeda Speaking is that pleasing rarity: a laugh-out-loud comedy that is about something deadly serious.

Joel Drake Johnson's play gets off to a cracking start with a funny but uneasy exchange between an alarmingly manic Doctor (Bo Poraj, glorious) and his adoring, newly promoted office manager Ilene, regarding finding a way to force out unseen co-worker Jaclyn. The comical meanness of Dr Williams' observations and attempts to coerce the unwilling Ilene into doing his bidding turns chilling when Williams states that Jaclyn may try to "play the race card". What unfolds in the next 90 minutes is a far from straightforward examination of race relations and corporate bullying.

One of the chief reasons for this is the character of Jaclyn herself. In Tanya Moodie's terrific, ferocious performance she is a mercurial, whip-smart black woman possessed of formidable energy, an infectious playfulness, an engaging eccentricity… and an ability to tip over into raw fury at the drop of a hat. In both writing and performance she is a fascinating creation; just when you start to really love her she is embarrassingly rude to a bewildered patient for failing to sign in on the floor below, and you get the distinct impression that hugely likeable as Jaclyn is, she is exhausting to be around.

The source of Jaclyn's anger is revealed in a remarkable, almost poetic monologue near the conclusion which gives potent voice to people on the receiving end of prejudice every day of their lives, and which also explains the play's title. It is a quietly shocking tour de force, delivered magnificently by Moodie and cleverly staged by director Jonathan O'Boyle to implicate every audience member.

Elizabeth Berrington's Ilene is a flawless piece of acting, devolving worryingly but all too credibly from a voice of reason to a hollow-eyed, gun-toting shell. The scenes where she and Moodie go head-to-head are brilliant: as funny as they are painful to watch. Sheila Reid feels underused but does lovely work as the comically clueless patient who unwittingly lights the touchpaper on this whole incendiary tale.

Jonathan O'Boyle has masterly control of Joel Drake Johnson's caustically funny, deceptively complex script, giving the comedy full rein but never for a moment losing sight of the deeper issues at hand. O'Boyle's versatility is prodigious: in the last 12 months alone, he has reinvigorated a JM Barrie warhorse (Dear Brutus, at Southwark Playhouse), thrillingly reinvented a pair of Broadway musicals (Hair and Pippin), and here proves equally adept at steering a fine piece of contemporary American writing.

This is highly recommended. A worrying, hilarious, fiercely intelligent comedy of mistrust that will give you plenty to think about long after it's over.