I’m not familiar with the works of Andrea Levy, but, judging from the riveting story told on the stage of the Chichester Festival Theatre last Saturday night, that’s definitely my loss. Fortunately Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with seven of our nearest and dearest, were there for the final night of this short run but which, if there is any justice in the world, is not the end of the line for this production.
The Long Song was Levy’s final novel, published in 2010; winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and a Booker Prize finalist. Suhayla El-Bushra’s adaptation takes us to 19th century Jamaica, to Amity sugar plantation and the birth of little July to her mama Kitty. We see how July was taken as a slave/maid to Caroline Mortimer, how she had her own baby, and how she saw her way through war, rebellion, the transition to freedom, and finally to old age – and somehow come out of it relatively unscathed. The play is seen through the eyes of Old July, as the refined young Thomas Kinsman encourages her to tell her story, suspecting she may be his mother – not that Old July would give away information so vital that easily – at least, not without several servings of cake.
Frankie Bradshaw’s simple but highly effective set comprised of a backdrop of sugar cane, suggesting the fields outside the plantation house, through which workers can emerge after a hard shift, or fleeing victims can escape; and a large trap on stage that opened and closed to reveal a much-used dining table. Michael Henry’s incidental music for the show is just that – not over-emphasised, but appears in occasional short bursts that always leave you wanting more.
Much of the play revolves around the household of Caroline Mortimer, with her well-to-do and pompous guests who look down on her almost as much as they look down on their slaves, and with Caroline’s own domestic servants, who include an unpredictable cook, a crotchety head servant, and young July trying her best to survive without making too much fuss about anything.
Scattered throughout the script are a few telling moments that say so much about the relationships between master and slave – better than words can ever express. For example, Caroline makes July her own by ignoring her real name and calling her Marguerite; that’s a simple way to dominate and eradicate a slave’s own identity. When two of the slaves are playing music to entertain Caroline’s ghastly guests, they meander tunelessly and talentlessly through some violin piece that just sounds appalling. But once they’re “below stairs” as it were, they pick up the tempo and rattle out some great music for each other’s pleasure. When “freeman” (much good it does him) Nimrod is being used as a scapegoat for murder (to cover up the suicide of Caroline’s brother) and flees for his life, all Caroline can think is not to kill him yet as he hadn’t finished doing her garden. When Caroline requires old Godfrey to endanger his life to fulfil her wishes, he won’t do it without payment – and he makes that abundantly clear to her. It’s these several minor details that highlight the dreadful reality of slavery and frequent instances of humour are used to reveal the humanity.
And there’s also the salutary tale of the new overseer, Robert Goodwin. Genuinely excited and inspired by the introduction of freedom for the slaves, he’s full of zeal for change and for treating the ex-slaves with respect. As his time in Jamaica continues, he falls in love with July – and it’s truly touching to see. But then he marries Caroline – because that way, he says, he can be with July more easily. But his zeal doesn’t last as he gets bogged down in what he sees as the workers’ unreasonable demands, and in the end he turns against them, and his own child’s mother, with full emotional cruelty.
Charlotte Gwinner has assembled a cast that acts together as a brilliant ensemble, but each of whom also gives a star performance. Llewella Gideon is simply superb as Old July; initially crusty, untrusting and grumpy, unwilling to dance to the tune of her upstart host; but as her memories unfurl, so does her true personality. Offering witty asides and knowing looks as her story is revealed before us, she has an amazing stage presence, a wonderful feel for comic timing, and also the gravitas to confront the harshness of her past. It’s an amazing performance.
Tara Tijani – on her professional debut – is also fantastic as young July, encapsulating all the worries of the enslaved with a nervous need to please, trying not to catch the eye of anyone who might harm her. But as July grows with confidence in company with Goodwin, so too does she blossom and inhabit that strange, uncertain world of a slave/servant with privileges and recognition. Olivia Poulet is brilliant as Caroline, totally wrapped up in her own needs and concerns, paying lip service to a modern, wannabe-enlightened manner of dealing with slaves, but still thinking only of herself. As her world starts to fall apart, she gives a great performance of someone clinging both to the wreckage and to the past. Leonard Buckley also gives a magnificent performance as the initially idealistic Goodwin, trying to force his own terms and conditions on the suspicious ex-slaves, falling head over heels for July but then failing to have the personal integrity to follow through on his promises.
Elsewhere in the cast, I really enjoyed the performance of Syrus Lowe as the delightfully-spoken and privileged Kinsman, carefully trying to work out how to pin old July down into telling the truth without pressing her too hard lest she withdraw co-operation. He’s also great as Freeman Nimrod, with his cocky turn of speech and arrogant conduct with the other slaves. Cecilia Appiah is excellent as the vain Miss Clara, playing up to her claim of prettiness whilst bullying the other slaves; Trevor Laird is a great Godfrey, the cantankerous old retainer who refuses to be pushed, and Rebecca Omogbehin breaks your heart as July’s mama Kitty. But the entire cast do a tremendous job and the story-telling skills are second to none.
There was a fairly unanimous standing ovation at the end of the performance which I was more than happy to join. Gobsmackingly brilliant from start to finish, this stunning show brings the day-to-day horrors of slavery into sharp focus and plays strongly on our emotions. I know that some members of our party (not me of course, ahem) had something of a tear in their eye at the end of the show. I’d love this production to be picked up and given another lease of life somewhere else soon – it so deserves it. Absolutely magnificent.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan