The Rolling Stone (Orange Tree Theatre)
Chris Urch's commanding new play arrives at the Orange Tree Theatre
His first full length play was a surprise smash-hit about Welsh coal mining that transferred to the West End. His second has already won the Bruntwood award for playwriting and now arrives in London having been seen and praised last year in Manchester and Leeds. It's probably fair to say, then, that with only two plays behind him Chris Urch is already becoming one of British theatre's major talents.
In The Rolling Stone, Urch couldn't be further from the damp dark underground of Wales. This time he writes about Uganda, a country where it is illegal to be gay. He focuses in on a family at the heart of the real-life hunts prompted by Kampala tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone in 2010, which outed homosexuals and called for their deaths.
It's a brave choice of subject, especially for a writer with limited experience of Uganda. But a playwright's job is to imagine, immerse and re-create (something Urch points out in the programme notes). And it's clear Urch has done his research: he deals with the material with delicacy and intelligence and creates a meaty, believable storyline with some beautifully drawn characters.
Dembe is an 18 year-old student who has met Sam, a boy who grew up in Londonderry but whose mum is Ugandan. Sam has come to work in Kampala and the two embark on an intense love affair. But around them the newspaper is stirring up distrust, prejudice and hatred. Because of Dembe's actions, his resolutely religious family – including his brother Joe who has recently been made a pastor – are placed in a horrendous position: support their loved one and risk potentially violent castigation by their community, or reject him.
Ellen McDougall's production is set on a church-like stage, with a central plinth where pastor Joe preaches from. But, in several climactic final scenes, it is also used as a pedestal where each of the characters defend their actions. It is as if they each plead their cases while God, and also the audience, judges them. These scenes are searingly intense.
There are a couple of great parts here and a superb cast impress. Fiston Barek as Dembe is brilliant, playing a man teetering between childhood and adulthood and facing a world viciously hostile to who he is. Jo Martin plays Mama, the local religious community pillar who fans the fires of hate, but appeals to God in the same breath. She is excellent, and it is the entire bunch who define this as a remarkable and deeply troubling production of a play that says some timeless things about family, religion and responsibility.
The Rolling Stone runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 20 February.