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The Mountaintop

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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I went along to the Trafalgar Studios expecting to find this already acclaimed two-hander from Theatre 503 housed in the smaller space. But James Dacre’s outstandingly well acted production has no trouble at all filling the main theatre and ends up far from “intimate.”

It takes time. American playwright Katori Hall places us in the Memphis motel room where Martin Luther King spent his last night on earth, working on a speech and fretting about his cigarettes; an aide has gone off to buy some Pall Malls and he calls up a cup of coffee on room service.

When the maid arrives, you wonder how the civil rights hero will keep her there for the play’s duration without some tacky one-on-one development. but the ninety minutes unfolds with a mixture of conversational gambits and magic realism that soon has you in an emotional head lock.

David Harewood doesn’t look much like King, but he exudes a tremulous authority and charismatic personality that must come somewhere close. He’s fraught with self doubt and troubled by his status, checking the bed clothes and telephone for bugging devices (his FBI file is bigger than the Bible, he says) and wondering whether to shave off his moustache.

As a foil to these misgivings, Lorraine Burroughs’s gingham-skirted maid Camae at first provides the Pall Malls he craves (the aide never returns), bounces off his domestic chit chat on the phone with his wife, hints at his reputation for a roving eye and draws him inexorably towards his destiny on the balcony outside room 306 on the following morning.

Their innocent duet becomes a dance of death, played out against the rumbling of the street protests and the gathering storm, with an impassioned debate on degrees of revolution, the plot to kill the white man with minds, not guns, the shortcomings of Malcolm X and the intentions of God, who comes on the phone as a woman.

The climax is a sensational act of reclamation and fulfillment as the stage explodes, the actors buoyant on a sea of anger, blasphemy, passion, music and crashing sound effects. It becomes a big play after all, and well worth its transfer to the large arena, however uncomfortable the seating in the grim Trafalgar.

- Michael Coveney

** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to THE MOUNTAINTOP on 5 August 2009 – inc a FREE programme, drink & post-show Q&A with the stars & director!! – all for only £27.50!! - click here for details! **

NOTE: The following FIVE STAR review dates from 15 June 2009, when this production premiered at Theatre503

Perhaps it's because many saw the election of Barack Obama as the symbolic fulfilment of Martin Luther King's “dream”, or perhaps it's because we've all just had a sharp reminder of the existence of racist sympathisers in our own country following the election of two BNP MEPs; either way, the timing of Katori Hall's new play The Mountaintop could hardly be more apposite.

Set in King's Memphis motel room the night before his assassination, the play is grounded in reality but with a surreal twist. As the great orator winds down after the delivery of his eerily prophetic “I've been to the mountaintop” speech, he's brought an after-hours coffee by the beautiful Camae, who soon turns out to be far more than a motel maid.

This fizzing two-hander is performed by two actors at the top of their game, superbly marshalled by director James Dacre. David Harewood captures the singing, vibrato vocal quality of King's voice, so recognisable from his speeches, and illuminates some of the paradoxes lying behind the rhetoric. There are traces of snobbery, arrogance and sexism – he's portrayed as a man who would die for equal rights but laughs at the suggestion God is a woman.

As Camae, Lorraine Burroughs is the perfect foil; sexy, wily, witty and every inch as powerful an orator as Harewood's King. The revelation of her true identity is hardly a big surprise, but she pulls off the transition with fervor. The two spar together brilliantly, and Hall ensures the text runs the gamut of emotions from the playfulness of a pillow-fight, to the heart-rending decision King must make to sacrifice himself for the cause.

This is a gem of a play; well-conceived and wholly rooted in the period it portrays (writer Hall hails from Memphis and her sense of personal connection to the events portrayed shines through). And to see an actor of Harewood's pedigree in such an intimate space, delivering a performance of such emotive conviction, is a real privilege. Highly recommended.

- Theo Bosanquet


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