Thursday, 25 February 2016

Theatre Review: The Rolling Stone

This review has posed me a dilemma: is it worth reviewing a show that’s already closed?

Admittedly this isn't the first time I've done this (see also: Hapgood) but that time it was accidental - I didn't realise the show had closed when I sat down to write the review. This time I know the show has closed. So it this post worth my time or yours?

Well, as for your time you’ll have to decide yourself. I'm not your mother. For my time, yes it is worth it. Because I loved the show and want to share that fact, even if it can influence no one to go and see it. I’ll try and keep it brief though.

Image source.

The show in question is The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch at the tiny and adorable Orange Tree Theatre (this was my first trip, it won’t be my last). The play tells the story of Dembe, a gay man in Uganda, and the effect of the country’s horrific anti-gay laws on him and his family, sister Wunnie and brother Joe. Joe has just been made pastor of their church, which is rather a complicating factor.

Even from those few lines you can probably predict roughly where the plot is going; there are no huge surprises or shocking twists here. But that doesn't matter. This play is so well written, with such authenticity that I was slightly surprised that it’s not verbatim, the characters so well rounded and everything so well acted that it’s a joy to watch regardless of the fact there’s a tragic inevitability to almost everything that unfolds.

Playwright Urch, who rightly won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting for this piece, is also exceptionally careful not to pass judgement on any of the characters involved either which makes the whole thing much more compelling. This play could so easily have been a dramatised thesis on why the Ugandan laws are awful (which they undoubtedly are), what it actually is is so much more interesting. He also wraps his plot up in some big themes each of which is drawn out and explored really well: identity (race, gender, religion, you name it), loyalty and how far we are prepared to go for our families.

In a cast of six, it’s difficult to find fault. Fiston Barek is just fantastic as Dembe, torn between his love for boyfriend Sam and loyalty to his family. Sule Rimi as Joe is magnetic; blisteringly good, slightly terrifying and probably my pick of the bunch. Faith Omole is a caring, angry Wunnie and a touching heart for her stricken family. Jo Martin as ambitious Mama, the sort-of-but-not-really villain of the piece, is perfectly imposing and Faith Alabi gives a moving, almost mute performance as her tragic daughter. Julian Moore-Cook is an enjoyable cocky Sam, who reveals his vulnerability slowly and touchingly. It’s a hard working group too as the cast are very rarely allowed to leave the performance space, spending their ‘off’ scenes sat amongst the audience, which doesn't feel as stagey or distracting as it probably should.

The staging is necessarily very simple - given there is no stage and no scenery - but nonetheless effective, particularly the use of sound, music and lighting to change the setting and mood. The wind effect used in the play's climactic final scene is also really well done and make for a more dramatic sequence than you would think possible in such a tiny space.

If it were possible, I’d be urging you to see this show because I really loved it. Having already transferred to the Orange Tree from Manchester’s Royal Exchange it would be fantastic to see The Rolling Stone get a ‘proper’ London transfer - it would fit well in the Young Vic or the NT’s Dorfman set up in the round - so that more people can see it. It deserves that much at least.

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