A nuanced take on immigration

A new play about a bereaved London Caribbean family avoids the preachiness of much contemporary drama

Theatre
Ghosts not grievances: “Nine Night”, at Trafalgar Studios until February 23, 2019 (©HELEN MURRAY)

Funerals have become cursory affairs in much of British culture: hurried affairs with some discreet eye-dabbing or rebranded as “celebrations of a life” with the grief too tidily put aside. Nine Night is a powerful counter-example: bereavement charted through the lives of a Caribbean family in London dealing with the death of a matriarch. The nine nights represent the period when friends and relatives traditionally visit the deceased’s family — leading up to a vigil when the ghost of the lost one is asked to leave the house for the final time.

Natasha Gordon’s first play — rightly garlanded with an Evening Standard award for best newcomer — is the story of generations gathered coffin-side to bid farewell to Gloria. Under the watchful eye of Aunt Maggie, old rituals are observed, consigning the twitchy clan to rum-fuelled evenings and a permanently bubbling stewpot.

Plays about death are really about those left behind, and the family convened here is fissiparous in all of the usual ways, some specific to their ethnic origins. The ghosts are not only those of the departed, but the haunting emotions, resentments and frustrations of a family who settled in Britain in the Windrush influx. Gloria’s son Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) is a lean wheeler-dealer, impatient with the cumbersome wake and keen to get the house on the market to solve his financial problems. Lorraine (Franc Ashman) tends a grievance over forfeiting her job to care for Gloria with passive-aggressive saintliness. Trudy (Michelle Greenidge), plays the half-sister left behind in Jamaica by her mother as a toddler, seeking to lay her own unhappiness to rest by visiting her mother one last time.

The power of maternal ties and their ability to generate friction is at the heart of the story, as loyalties swerve, shift and collide.

Celia Noble as Aunt Maggie is torn between embracing the moment and getting home for EastEnders: “Tings is goin’ on down at the Queen Vic.” We’re not spared the grittier practical aspects of dealing with a corpse by practical Maggie: “Me grease up she foot good, help the stockings slide on.” The results are duly sent via Instagram to the folks back home to inspect.

I’ve seen a lot of new plays this year and, amid the burgeoning talent that marks out British theatre, been a bit discouraged by the one-size preachiness of drama about race and multicultural life. Here, a new director, Roy Alexander Weise, makes the nimble script of Nine Night a subtle take on the subject, conveying the capacity immigrants across generations to be integrated — yet feel a wariness from their chosen country. The Home Office’s fiasco in dealing so shabbily with the Windrush generation underlines a part of why that might be — but it’s ghosts, not grievances that keep this funeral party rattling along.

Black onstage talent of a different timbre and a lot more volume stomps the boards at the Savoy Theatre in Michael Bennett’s Tony award-winning Dreamgirls. Written in 1981, it’s a musically supercharged journey through the tribulations of an R&B girl band, with a suspicious resemblance to the Supremes. True confession, I ended up seeing at the behest of the household 13-year-old, who found the pull of Amber Riley from the TV romp Glee irresistible. I settled in with an overpriced G&T and the hope it would all pass off  briskly. But Dreamgirls is a jukebox musical of such gorgeousness (frothier frocks than a Sondheim Follies reunion) and a punchy tale of ambition, sex, high-Cs and weight issues that it’s impossible to stay aloof.

The band’s original lead singer Effie White (Riley) is usurped on stage and in love by her svelte frenemy Deena Jones (Liisi LaFontaine) as ambition eats away at the ties of music and friendship. It’s a simple, even simplistic tale of showbiz ruthlessness, but also a brilliantly-engineered vehicle for a slew of originally-written songs. You can blame it for introducing the young Beyoncé to the screen as Deena in the 2006 movie and frequency of “One Night Only” on Saturday night TV talent shows. Voices are big broad and brassy, as befits song numbers with names like “And I Am Telling You You I’m Not Going” but it’s a masterclass in musical theatre energy. Over two hours, the hits keep coming fast enough to please even the band’s greedy manager and the whole effect is one of unapologetic indulgence. We get crystal shimmering curtains, a set that shifts colour hues, and quick-fire apricot and mauve costume changes. Casey Nicholaw’s slick direction makes this a Broadway night out in London for a fraction of the price — even worth the cost of the Savoy’s drinks. Just cheer up and go.

As the year turns and even the hardiest critic yearns to spend some time on the sofa with a box set, I am back into the sixth and final series of The Americans, the durable saga of two sleeper agents Philip (Matthew Rhys) and starchy Elizabeth (Keri Russell) undercover in suburban Washington as the Cold War stutters to an end.

The advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and the imminent Reykjavik summit on disarmament divides loyalties in Moscow and among its secret squirrels abroad. Elizabeth and her handler combine cooking Russian stews with planning the removal of the next hapless American to stand in the way of KGB aims. Their neighbour Stan (Noah Emmerich), an affable FBI man, doggedly tries to keep America safe — while missing the threat bearing beers and cupcakes.

The Americans transcended its genre of high intrigue and murderous activity on the Potomac and back in the corridors of Russian power. Some 30 years after the Gorby thaw, I guess Elizabeth would be somewhere at the murky back end of the ghastly Skripal assassination attempt — and Phillip would be a pensioner in the ’burbs of DC, enjoying the ironies of Donald Trump’s Russian entanglements.

If Killing Eve was this past year’s BBC spy hit, a flashy female Grand Guignol of the genre, The Americans has proved that glossy TV drama based on detailed research can combine geopolitics with thrills and chills. You will never look at that neat couple next door in the same way again.