Review – Our Lady of Kibeho, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2019

Our Lady of KibehoTime: 1981; Place: Kibeho, a sleepy town in the southwest of Rwanda. 17-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke, student at Kibeho College, receives the first of many visions of the Virgin Mary. Disbelieved by teachers and fellow students alike, she is ridiculed and accused of attention-seeking, or at best hallucinations, until another student, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka also has a vision. Oldest girl in the school Marie Claire Mukangango bullies and taunts the other girls until she, too, has a vision. Perplexed and confused, the local authorities cannot believe what the girls are saying is true, but nor can they account for the obviously otherworldly experiences the girls have, such as acquiring immense weight or floating above the ground in their beds.

olok10Eventually a papal representative makes the journey from Rome to Kibeho to see for himself and test the evidence of the girls. During these visitations, the Virgin Mary has apparently passed on messages to the girls for the attention of both the Rwandan President and to his Holiness the Pope. When all the townsfolk gather together on the Feast of the Assumption to witness a special visitation that the Virgin Mary has promised, she uses the girls to warn of the Rwandan Genocide and the Kibeho Massacre that would take place ten years later.

olok1This is the UK premiere of this superb play by Katori Hall that was first performed in the US in 2014. With elements of The Crucible, but very much its own play, it’s full of beautifully drawn characters, pin-drop hearing suspense, riveting drama and thorough spookiness. It also reveals the dark rivalry and incipient racism between the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples, which spills out into playground violence and of course presages the atrocities to follow. However, it’s also laced with a surprising amount of humour, with the badinage between the girls, the grumpiness of the nun, the cynicism of the bishop and the culturally contrasting Italianisms of the visiting Father Flavia.

olok9But the heart of the story is not only the extraordinary revelations and experiences of the girls, it’s also the reactions and attitudes of the very human and fallible headmaster, Father Tuyishime, who is undergoing his own questioning and misgivings about his faith. He’s the only authority figure inclined to believe the girls; so when they’re doubted and tested, by association, so is he. When the cold-hearted Father Flavia sticks his needle into Alphonsine’s chest to gauge her reaction, you feel him bleed just as much as she does. His journey (yes, it’s J-word time) is the thread that unifies the play.

olok7I don’t know whether it’s the skill of Ms Hall’s writing, James Dacre’s direction or the individual actors’ performances – probably a combination of all three – but what sets this play apart is the range of wonderfully idiosyncratic characterisations. There are so many superb performances in this production that it’s hard to know where to start. Michelle Asante’s Sister Evangelique is more battleaxe than beneficence; long used to the trying ways of teenage girls, no doubt, she shows all the signs of that nun-like cruel to be kindness that convent girls all over the world have spent their lives coming to terms with. She doesn’t care who she’s snappy with – parents, headmaster, bishop, Papal emissary, they’ve all got to do things her way or there’ll be trouble. She’s probably kind too; which makes for a fascinating character blend. Ms Asante’s performance is a total joy; menacing, sarcastic, manipulative but also vulnerable.

olok3Gabrielle Brooks’ Alphonsine is an excellent study of an ordinary girl projected into a position of greatness without seeking it. Confused, resentful even, of the attention of the Virgin Mary, she’s still working out her role in life; for example, to what extent she finds Father Tuyishime attractive, how much she needs to take control of her own situation, must she comply with the demands of the Vatican and the local authorities. Yasmin Mwanza’s Anathalie is a demure, bullyable, unassuming girl, thrust into the religious limelight, surprised by the influence she seems to have acquired. Pepter Lunkuse’s Marie-Clare is a brilliant portrayal of a young person to whom authority comes naturally but with a tendency to abuse it by bullying and hectoring; and when she, too, is visited by the Virgin Mary, she is forced to fall into line with those she has bullied, but still remains a defiant, difficult, bristly person to deal with. It’s a superb performance.

olok4Leo Wringer is outstanding as the beaming and totally untrustworthy bishop; a man with his eyes on the tourism prize, who manages to toe the Catholic line yet still go home to his wife for his creature comforts. We’ve all met authority figures who have carved out a comfortable, hypocritical niche for themselves and get away with murder, and Mr Wringer conveys this brilliantly. Ewart James Walters is also excellent as the parent whose concern is less for the wellbeing of his daughter and more for the consequences on his income, but still wants to be centre stage when the media roll into town.

olok6The ever-reliable Michael Mears is rivetingly good as Father Flavia from Rome; a controlled blend of sardonic mistrust, sadistic ruthlessness and devastated revelation when he hears the words of the Virgin through the mouth of a child. And there are some smart and strong performances from Michaela Blackburn, Ibinabo Jack and Rima Nsubuga as the other girls at the college, and a plaintive, emotional performance from the multi-talented Keenan Munn-Francis as Emmanuel, the local boy who also catches the religious mania.

olok12A big highlight for me was to see Ery Nzaramba again, mesmeric as Dionysus in The Bacchae a few years ago; once more he excels, this time as Father Tuyishime. He’s one of those actors who dominates the stage, whose emotions you can see simply by looking at his eyes. You immediately connect with his character, identify with him, and feel all the doubts, concerns, injustices, and defeats that he experiences. You connive with his backhanded comments about Sister Evangelique. You tentatively explore any sexual feelings he might have about touching Alphonsine with him. You try to talk him out of his career decision at the end. To be fair, Ms Hall has written a humdinger of a role, and Mr Nzaramba brings it to life magnificently.

olok2I have no hesitation in calling this play a Modern Classic. The riveting storyline, the dynamic characterisations, the superb writing, the dramatic wow-factor. And I haven’t even mentioned Orlando Gough’s music, Jonathan Fensom’s convincing set design or Charles Balfour’s clever and suggestive lighting. Carling don’t do stage productions, but if they did…. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd February and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Review – The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 14th April 2018

Fantastic Follies of Mrs RichI don’t think I’ve ever encountered the works of Mary Pix before. She lived from 1666 to 1709 and I presume must be considered one of the earliest female playwrights whose works are performed today; only the still renowned Aphra Behn appears earlier in history. In 1700 Mary Pix wrote The Beau Defeated, or The Lucky Younger Brother, which Jo Davies and her team at the RSC have unearthed and re-shaped into The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, a later Restoration period comedy of manners, and with which they have chalked up a most palpable hit.

Mrs Rich as Mrs RichMrs Rich (employing all the usual subtlety of 18th century character names) yearns for acceptance into society which she feels would fully recognise her innate style, elegance and quality. Trouble is, she’s all cash and no class. Pally with her cheeky maidservant Betty, whom she renames De la Bette because it sounds French, (although it sounds like it would mean of the beast!) she is the widow of a banker (who were clearly as popular in 1700 as they are today) and desperate to marry someone to get a title. Just the mention of the word Countess make her nose twitch excitedly like some Restoration Bisto Kid. In an attempt to become a Lady, she dallies with the foppish Sir John Roverhead, but he has an eye and a kiss curl for other ladies. Will Mrs Rich hit the big time with her social status or not? Will perhaps country squire the elder Lord Clerimont be the man she is looking for? You’ll just have to watch it to find out.

Susan Salmon, Tam Williams, Sophie Stanton, Sandy FosterMrs Rich is a dream of a comic character; one of a long line of pompous persons in drama who are ridiculed because of their pretentiousness. But she’s not just a female Malvolio. It’s her desire to achieve recognition of her quality to the outside world that is her true weak spot. She’s not actually an unkind person – far from it, although she will trample over you to get what she wants and if she spies a rival, woe betide them. She has Hyacinth Bucket’s need for everything to look perfect; she has Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby’s desire to impress the mayor and join the golf club. You sense Mrs Rich would definitely wear The Emperor’s New Clothes if she thought it would bag her a Baron.

Laura Elsworthy, Daisy BadgerThis totally superb new production also plays around with the gender assumptions of the era. Though she may not have class, Mrs Rich has power, by virtue of her money. Normally it would only be men with that luxury. We see her powerplay with Sir John through her eyes rather than through his. She is surrounded by her own set of sycophantic women who, of course, support her every whim, until rivalry in love rears its ugly head and a duel ensues – but this time, it’s between two women.Jessica Turner, Daisy Badger In a side plot, it is the Lady Landsworth, who has come to a position of power by inheriting from a rich old reprobate when she was extremely young – we’re sensing Operation Yewtree levels here – who seeks to test potential future husbands/lovers/wealth providers by pretending to be a courtesan to see if they take the bait. Again, women control the men. Lady Landsworth’s object of desire is the pathetically lovelorn young Clerimont, who swoons to his bed with woeful regularity, thereby adopting the traditionally feminine role of languishing and being pursued whilst Lady L does all the running. It’s a fascinatingly different slice of life and of course extremely funny to see it from the other perspective.

Susan SalmonWhen you enter the auditorium, the fantastic orchestra is already there, knocking out Classics’ Greatest Hits but on saxophones! So you’ve already got a classic setting but with a surprisingly modern treatment, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. The backdrops inform you of the setting – so the salon chez Rich has an extravagant Hogarthian large scale painting on the back with the words Mrs Rich’s House spray-painted irreverently over the top. It’s classic, but it’s audacious. Young Clerimont’s rooms are depicted with a backdrop of a washing line with the name Mrs Fidget’s picked out in cross-stitch like a Victorian sampler. Colin Richmond’s costumes are exquisite, reflecting all the finery money can buy for Mrs Rich and her like, the practical country tweed for the huntin’ and fishin’ brigade, and Mrs Fidget’s “seen better days” cheap and cheerful look. Aretha AyehThe songs are by Grant Olding, who seems to be composing everything nowadays, and he’s clearly on top form as Mrs Rich breaks off from the narrative to deliver a few cabaret style numbers that do precisely what all the best songs in musicals do – push forward both the action and our understanding of the characters, with humour and pathos. If there was a cast album, I’d buy it.

Sandy Foster, Sophie Stanton, Tam WilliamsAt the heart of all the action is Mrs Rich, played with a tremendous sense of fun by Sophie Stanton. From the moment we meet her, dignity in tatters following an affront, you never want her to leave the stage. With her hair all bouffant’d up, and her portly skirts all hooped out, she looks like a cross between Madame de Maintenon and one of those dollies your Gran used to conceal a toilet roll. It’s a simply fantastic comic performance from start to finish, with brilliant throwaway lines (don’t forget your things, she mutters, as she dismisses her upstart niece), fabulous knowing looks to the audience we’ve not seen the like of since we saw Tyne Daly on Broadway, and – oh my stars – a complete revelling in the magnificent grandiloquence of her lines. Added to which, she has a startlingly beautiful and sincere singing voice that’s a perfect match for Grant Olding’s songs. She dominates the stage, but it’s a generous performance too, that allows her to be upstaged by the appearance of two lurchers over whom everyone fawns, whilst she’s left to pirouette vacantly as an attention-seeking device because the dogs are much more cute. A memorably classic comic performance.

Solomon Israel, Will Brown, Sadie ShimminShe is accompanied by a brilliant ensemble who take to the comedic opportunities of the show like a canard à l’eau. Too many to mention individually, but here are a few of the performances that really stood out for me. Solomon Israel’s brilliantly feeble Younger Clerimont had me in stitches throughout, as he mopes around in his blanket, lamely seeking solace from his manservant and landlady, the cheeky yet loyal Jack, played absolutely spot on by Will Brown and the delightfully faux-posh Mrs Fidget, played by Sadie Shimmin – whose fabulous drunk act brought back memories of Freddie Frinton.

Solomon IsraelDaisy Badger is a charmingly enthusiastic and confident Lady Landsworth, Laura Elsworthy a fearless and nicely impudent Betty, and Tam Williams a hilariously flamboyant Sir John. “I am…” he bows, flouncingly to Mr Rich, trendily removing “your humble servant” from the usual greeting to show his flighty modernity. “You’re what?” grumpily replies the surly brother in law.

Tam WilliamsMrs Rich’s gaming partners (who of course are out to fleece her) are beautifully played by Sandy Foster as the brilliantly pinch-expressioned and two-faced Mrs Trickwell and Susan Salmon as the trying-very-hard-to-be-French-but-not-quite-that-classy Lady La Basset. Amanda Hadingue is a hearty Toni the gamekeeper, and Leo Wringer an even heartier Elder Clerimont, terrifically conveying the unrefined enthusiasm of the rough diamond out-of-towner; a bit like Crocodile Dundee in New York but without the knives.

Amanda HadingueWe absolutely loved it and laughed all the way through. We could easily have gone back in and watched it again that evening; Duchess of Malfi was on instead though, so it wasn’t an option. I don’t think this is scheduled for a London transfer, so I urge you to get on to the RSC straight away to book tickets. It’s on until 14th June. Refusal is futile. You have to go!

Leo Wringer, Jessica TurnerP. S. Got to love those lurchers. Never work with animals they say, but these two spread joy on every appearance. On its final entrance to the stage the bigger one got sidetracked by the presence of an interesting chap in an aisle seat. You could almost hear the dog’s thought processes. “Hey! You look like a friendly type! Would you give me a stroke? Awww thanks! Any sweeties? I bet you do!! OK better get on with the show now. Bye! See you at the stage door!”

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

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!