August Wilson’s 1990 play starts the new Made in Northampton season at the Royal and Derngate and is (I believe) its UK premiere. Set in Memphis Lee’s café in Pittsburgh in 1969, the urban environment all around is being demolished to make way for a regeneration programme, destroying the lives of its largely black inhabitants. The local authority want to seize and knock down the café too, but Lee isn’t going to accept less than $25,000 – having paid $5,500 for it originally.
This slice-of-life play contains a variety of themes and plots, weaving in and out of each other, over a few days. Lee worries about his failing business; his one and only chef/waitress, Risa, self-harms by cutting her legs in order (she says) to put off unwanted attention from men; wide boy Wolf uses the café phone as his personal office, taking illegal gambling bets; mentally unstable Hambone can’t get over being cheated over payment for a job; young chancer Sterling steals his way out of financial problems; and old guard Holloway dispenses his wisdom and undertaker West works hard, getting on with their lives as best they can. Overriding all these is the all-pervasive atmosphere that black lives are inferior to white lives, with the growing Black Power movement and the destruction of black homes and businesses with the urban regeneration.
It’s a curious play. At three hours, it feels too long. All the points that the play makes could be made and still shave at least half-an-hour off. Dramatically, there aren’t many plot progression points. However, the characters are strangely spellbinding, and the play, despite its faults, oddly compelling. Admittedly, not a lot happens on a day to day basis; but isn’t that true of life? Take the title – Two Trains Running – it’s part of a throwaway speech by one of the characters, elevated to its titular significance although it’s just a phrase from everyday life. The play reminded me a little of Eugene O’Neill – a big helping of The Iceman Cometh with a tad of Desire Under the Elms and a sprinkling of All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Everyone has their own concerns, some of which they’re prepared to share, others they’d prefer to keep private. Most of the plot threads are tied up at the end – maybe too neatly. I’m still uncertain as to whether Lee’s good news at the end was genuine or pretence. But maybe that’s a strength in itself.
Frankie Bradshaw has done a fantastic job in recreating the café in the midst of a building site. The furniture, the bar, the phone, the windows all exude an air of 1960s disappointment. The jukebox is perfect for the era, although I remain unconvinced by the more modern-looking coffee jug. Amy Mae’s lighting design is also superb, creating eerie, dreamlike effects juxtaposed with the harsh neon lights of real life. And Nancy Medina’s direction respects the text and allows the characters to develop without ever imposing an external slant.
There are some stunning central performances. I found Andrew French mesmerising as Memphis Lee, bringing out all the character’s hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, truths and self-delusions. Michael Salami is also superb as Sterling, the kind of waster who nevertheless has a charisma that you find hard not to like, flipping easily from childish enthusiasm to incensed fury. And with a deceptively challenging role, Anita-Joy Uwajeh impresses with her constant reactions and attention to the events in the café – portraying that difficult balance between keeping the customer satisfied but existing one step aloof from the rest of them. Beautifully done.
Ray Emmet Brown gives an enjoyable performance as the flashy Wolf, full of confidence and brashness, humour and cynicism. Also – great shoes! Derek Ezenagu tackles the problem role of the vulnerable Hambone – who only says a couple of sentences, repeated time and time again – with great commitment and sincerity, creating an uncomfortable, but very realistic watch. And Geoff Aymer brings authority and dignity to the role of West, the undertaker/businessman who’s never short for work and provides the clearest insight into what the world outside the café doors looks like. For me, Leon Herbert didn’t convey Holloway’s self-assurance with what I felt was a faltering, uncertain performance – hopefully he will grow into the role as the run progresses.
After its run at the Royal and Derngate, the production tours to Southampton, Oxford, Doncaster, Ipswich, Guildford and Derby, finishing at the end of October. A four-star production that provides three-star entertainment. Great characters with some great lines supported by a magnificent set; but, in the final analysis, also somewhat rambling and woolly. Like life, really.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan