Review – Soul, The untold story of Marvin Gaye, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2016

SoulTell you what, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. After all, we’ve all got one. Although I think mine is a bit different from most people’s. Here’s mine: Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby. What? I was thinking of favourite Marvin Gaye songs, landsakes! Yep, I was nine when that came out. Even at that tender age I had decided that I Heard it through the Grapevine was a bit self-indulgently dour. But Too Busy was a happy song and I loved the fact that Marv didn’t get around to singing the title line until the end of the second chorus, he just let his backing singers do the rest. Funny the things you remember!

Nathan Ives-MoibaI was slightly alarmed when I realised that Soul was written by Roy Williams because I really didn’t like his Days of Significance which I saw earlier this year. However, this is a vastly superior work. It’s the story of the life of Marvin Gaye, as seen through the eyes of his two sisters Jeanne and Zeola – in fact the play was inspired by Jeanne’s memoir and the writer interviewed both sisters to obtain original, first-hand material. We see Marvin Snr and Alberta’s first meeting, followed by their quick marriage; fresh-faced young Marvin being brought up with his sisters; Keenan Munn-Francishis father’s ruthless dealing out of violent discipline on the boy; his subsequent facing up to his father; his brief spell in the Air Force; then his developing career, but how it never brought him happiness. The second act is a thrilling but despairing look at the family’s life together in The Big House in Gramercy Place, Los Angeles; Marvin’s decline into cocaine addiction and vodka consumption; and finally his death at the hands of his father, who shot him when he was possessed with sheer anger – which struck me as being pretty much his father’s default mentality from the start.

Marvin Snr the TyrantEveryone knows that Marvin Gaye was killed by his father; so right from the start this play is fashioned as a classic tragedy – we already know its sad ending. We have our central tragic hero, and our villain, Marvin Snr; he accuses his son of sexual shenanigans with his mother so we also have some Oedipal content; Jeanne and Zeola watch from the outside and comment as the drama is played out, so they assume the role of the Chorus. Within seconds of the play starting we know that Marvin Snr’s God-fearing nature is of the brutal and unforgiving kind, refusing to have anything to do with Alberta’s child from an earlier union, and degrading his son into a whimpering mess with the application of his belt. You sense that from here on in, any happiness is only ever going to be temporary. Marvin Jnr’s professional (or otherwise) relationship with Tammi Terrell is brought to a vivid end on stage as she collapses on the floor with a brain tumour, just as they were making sweet music together (literally). Nathan Ives-Moiba and Abiona OmonuaThe church that Marvin Jnr promises Marvin Snr never materialises. In the background, marriages take place, followed by divorces. Marvin Snr is revealed as a serial womaniser and a cross-dresser, which is an interesting combo. Alberta’s cancer takes hold and makes her weaker. There’s not a lot of happiness here – which makes a fascinating contrast with the frequently recurring and uplifting gospel music performed by the fantastic Royal and Derngate Community Choir. Nevertheless, I didn’t find the play remotely gloomy. I thought it was a fascinating study of two men who were their own worst enemy, and who, for 99% of the time, were at each other’s throats. The 1% when they weren’t, as epitomised in the very final scene, was very emotional. Marvin Jnr had a tear rolling down his cheek in that final scene – and I think I did too.

A song is bornJon Bausor has created an amazing set which not only looks absolutely the bees’ knees, but also solves that problem of how to create several acting spaces on the tiny stage of the Royal. When you enter the auditorium, it’s clear we’re in a church, with Pentecostal blue curtains behind a devout looking podium, and plush carpeted stairs flowing down into the audience, taking out Row A with the majestic sweep of their woollen twist. Before it started, I did confess to Mrs Chrisparkle that at any moment Kenny Everett could emerge from behind the curtain with his huge hands shouting Brother-lee love! Yes, I know, tasteless. Above the stage, Marvin’s parents’ bedroom, dominated by a cross. Downstairs, basic furniture that provides sufficient but not excessive comfort. For the second act, a much more luxurious main room, with a Brother and sisterscarpeted set of stairs with so deep a pile you could lose an entire foot in it; an enviable set of hifi separates (made my mouth water) and The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s massive orange leather three-piece suite that she bought in 1973 when she was feeling flush. A really superb, flexible and accurately furnished set. Also, hats off for the lighting design with its variety of moods and uses – subtle yet very effective.

Final sceneThe performances are really strong throughout and I thought each member of the cast absolutely gave it their all. As our guides to the story, I really enjoyed the performances of Petra Letang and Mimi Ndiweni as Jeanne and Zeola, the older sister more headstrong and traditional, the younger more fun-loving and forgiving. They had a nice double-act going, with gentle bickering about how much of the story to reveal and with divided loyalties when it came to supporting one family member over another. I’d spotted young Keenan Munn-Francis in the cast of The Scottsboro Boys as being One To Watch, and I must say he is on great form here as the young Marvin, singing sweetly and boldly standing up to his father’s tyranny. Nice boxing work too! Adjoa Andoh, as Alberta, trod the tricky path of supporting her difficult husband even when Adjoa Andohhe’s patently the family despot; beautifully trying to smooth the waters of family disharmony and doing her best always to support her son. There’s also a cracking performance by Abiona Omonua as Tammi Terrell, a 60s vision of psychedelia, firmly putting Marvin in his place and giving us a hint of their fantastic duet. Yes, I agree, it would have been terrific to hear them perform You Are Everything all the way through, but drama must have its way.

Mimi NdiweniAt the heart of the story is the antagonistic relationship between father and son, and this created some terrific electricity on stage. Leo Wringer is excellent as Marvin Snr; in his younger days inscrutably malign, you sense hiding his bullying and controlling nature beneath the façade of the Church, using attack as the best form of defence when his womanising ways are found out; in his later years, a slow contempt for his son continually growing – although you do get the sense that if only Marvin Jnr had kept his promise and given him his church, he would have been happy simply to control and domineer his worshippers and not his family. Nathan Ives-Moiba is perfect as Marvin Jnr; at first ambitious and dedicated to his work – I loved the brief dance/dream sequence of him at the piano, Marvin's drinking againtrying to create a masterpiece – only to be overwhelmed by his drug addiction and reduced to pathetic desperation, paranoia making him believe there are people outside “out to get him”, and scrabbling round the floor in his dressing gown trying to save spilt coke. His death is provocatively staged, with him offering himself up to his father, arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross; but, like Eleanor Rigby, no one was saved.

Marvin and TammiI came away from this production awed and thrilled. Full of passion, tragedy, and the frailty of man. I felt desperately sorry for the characters but totally impressed with the insight into what Marvin Gaye’s life – and death – must have been like. A co-production with the Hackney Empire, it’s moving to that theatre on 15th June after its season at the Royal and Derngate has ended. Cannot recommend it too highly!

Review – The Scottsboro Boys, Garrick Theatre, 29th December 2014

The Scottsboro BoysThe Scottsboro Boys is based on a true story of racial prejudice and injustice in Alabama, a sequence of events that started in 1931. Nine black teenagers, none of whom knew each other at the time, were on a train going about their various business, doing or seeking work somewhere around Chattanooga, when they were accused by two white girls, also on the same train, of rape. The case became something of a cause celebre, with the boys adamantly protesting their innocence, but unfair trial after unfair trial found them guilty, even when one of the alleged victims withdrew her accusation. It wasn’t until 1937 that the rape charges against the four youngest boys were dropped, 1976 when the last of the defendants was officially declared not guilty, and, incredibly, 2013 before they were all pardoned. As the show reveals, the majority of them went on to lead variously tragic lives, in and out of prison, including suicide, manslaughter, and mental illness.

Garrick TheatreSounds like a bundle of laughs, doesn’t it? It’s taken us a very long time to see this show. It opened at the Young Vic in October 2013 to great success, and then transferred to the Garrick last autumn, where it is scheduled to stay until 21st February. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleased to get the chance to see it whilst we still could. As we were enjoying our pre-show lunch, we were talking about what little we knew (shame on us) about the case of the Scottsboro Boys, and how we expected it to be rather serious and sad. “…And it’s a musical?” asked Mrs C. “How are they going to make a story like that into a musical, without ridiculing or belittling the people involved?” A good question.

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendonThe answer is a stroke of genius. It’s not a serious, mournful sub-opera, but a song-and-dancey modern take on the traditional American Minstrel show, looking at its obvious potential for accusations of racism fair and square in the face, just as the American people themselves had to at the time. It follows the structure of the Minstrel show in great detail, with the performers sitting in a semi-circle, the characters of Bones and Tambo (named after their musical instruments) on the far ends each playing the fool, and with the whole thing MC’d by an interlocutor, in this case – unusually – played by a white actor, to strengthen the suggestion of racial injustice. It’s a bold strategy, but it really works, as, while revelling in the immense talent and skills of the performers, enjoying the comedy, and loving the music and dancing, nevertheless you spend a lot of the show considering how very un-PC all this is today.

Brandon Victor DixonBut that’s the point – it’s that telling juxtaposition between what’s appropriate on a stage and what occurred in 1930s Alabama that is the driving force behind this show. Whilst the content is disturbing, the style is pizzazzy, and the challenge for the audience is to appreciate both equally. It’s full of surprises. There’s a moment near the end when some of the characters are telling the audience directly what was to become of them in the years and decades to follow. One character says he became a cop so he could finally find out what it was like to hold and use a gun – cue genuine laugh from the audience. Then you find out what he did with it and it was one of those Ayckbournian moments when your laughter gets caught in your throat. The ever-present unnamed lady, watching the action, occasionally adding gestures and reactions, seems an irrelevant and unnecessary add-on for much of the time until you finally realise her significance, which beautifully links the whole Scottsboro saga to the rest of the fight for racial equality in America.

Bones and TamboIt’s not surprising this is such a great production. The music and lyrics are by Kander and Ebb, creators of such masterpieces as Cabaret and Chicago (although Mrs C will point out they also wrote Curtains which we saw on Broadway in 2008 and which she, in particular, hated). Scottsboro Boys was actually one of the last shows they worked on together, as Fred Ebb died in 2004, and composer John Kander had to complete the lyrics to a few of the songs himself. Those songs have beautiful melodies but hard-hitting lyrics which bring you up short, as you might expect from the sweet/sour structure of the whole show.

Scottsboro BoysThen you have direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, who put together the amazing Contact that we saw in 2002 (perhaps we should draw a veil over the fact that she also worked on the Menier’s Paradise Found – not an easy show by any means but within some rewrites of being good). Phil Cornwell’s orchestra recreates that American Dixie sound beautifully, with plenty of banjo twanging and high-falutin’ fiddling, and it’s all set on an eminently useful blank stage, with just some very versatile chairs that can link together to suggest any structure you want (plus they’re also good for just sitting on.) The backdrop consists of a couple of massive picture frames suspended without the aid of a spirit level, nicely suggestive of having to look at life through wonky angles.

Brandon V DixonAdded to all that, you have an amazing cast made up of some of the finest singers and dancers you could ever hope to grace any stage. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, dressed to the nines like a Robertson’s Golly, combining great physical comedy with verbal dexterity to recreate the traditional Minstrel show roles but doubling up as sheriffs, lawyers, attorneys and guards to emphasise the funny/serious contrast. They are an incredible double act. James T Lane, wonderful as Richie in A Chorus Line, continues to show his amazing dance skills as Ozie Powell; and gives a really heart-breaking performance after his character survives being shot by a guard. Keenan Munn-FrancisWe both really enjoyed the performance of Keenan Munn-Francis as the youngest boy Eugene Williams, showing terrific song and dance skills as well as great comic timing – he’s definitely going to be Someone To Watch. But in fact all the cast perform with great commitment, juggling the dual aspects of tough injustice with sheer entertainment.

Julian GloverVeteran actor Julian Glover, whom I have admired ever since I saw him play Coriolanus at the RSC in 1978, gives a powerful performance as The Interlocutor. A southern gentleman dressed all in white with a touch of the Uncle Sam; slightly manic, physically still strong but with a sense of slight fragility, playing the show-must-go-on role of Master of Ceremonies, whilst occasionally stepping out of his bonhomie to become savagely aggressive to his colleagues, it’s a brilliant performance. But for me the star of the show was undoubtedly the splendid Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson – a brilliant stage presence, great voice, and with amazing powers of communicating the character’s dignity and sadness. I know he’s had some success in America but he was new to me, and I have no hesitation in saying A Star Is Born. Overall, The Scottsboro Boys is a brilliantly envisioned show, masterfully presented and performed with wit, pathos and a helluva lot of great song and dance. We loved it.

Alabama LadiesPS. It’s a pet hate of mine, so I must say it – I would have preferred it to have an interval. At 1 hour and 45 minutes non-stop, no matter how good it is, I always end up shifting the buttocks and stifling (or giving in to) a yawn. Yes I’m old fashioned, but I like to stretch the legs, get some oxygen flowing, have a chance to chat about it so far with Mrs C, use the facilities and so on. The modern trend is to rush through the show in one gulp so you can get out of the theatre more quickly and Do Other Things. Apparently I’m in the minority by preferring to have intervals. I can live with that.