A rum do…
I attended my first Nine Night (National Theatre) when I was twelve. Our Jamaican neighbour, Mrs Grant, affectionately known as Mrs G, had died. A Nine Night is basically an extended wake, a celebration of the one who has passed, a funerary tradition practiced in the Caribbean. As with many migrant communities we bring those customs with us, thereby maintaining cultural norms in a foreign land. I wasn’t thinking any of that when I mourned Mrs G. I was sad at losing one of the pillars of our North London neighbourhood, somebody who would chew the cud with my mother, known by Mrs G as Mrs “Eftimeel”, on either side of their garden walls, putting the world to right. She was also aunty to Eddy Grant. Our families were closely connected in our “mix up” community as Mrs G would describe it and one day I will get around to writing a book or sitcom, there are so many stories to tell.
All those memories and more came gushing back as I watched Natasha Gordon’s wickedly funny debut play about family ritual and the assortment of characters who turn up on such occasions, each one bringing their own potted, and often apocryphal, version of the deceased. Poor millennial Anita can’t cope. It’s her grandmother Gloria who has died, but she can’t stomach the thought of nine days of it. Her mother Lorraine is more sanguine and knows that messing with tradition is unwise. What to do? Open the rum of course, lots of it. This happened to me once while watching Barbados play Jamaica in a cricket match in Georgetown, I was offered bottles despite insisting to my new-found friends I was teetotal. You can’t say no at cricket and you can’t say no at a Jamaican wake.
Rum and curry goat soon calm the stomachs but also loosen the tongues. The “mix up” of characters that Gordon introduces us to include human tornado Auntie Maggie (Cecilia Noble) and the unassuming Uncle Vince (Ricky Fearon). Gloria’s children, Lorraine (Fran Ashman) and Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson), born and bred in Britain, take a more measured approach to proceedings but that is far too risky when the emotions are high. The emotional apogee and general mayhem is provided by Gloria’s eldest daughter, Trudy, who arrives from Jamaica, where she has lived from birth. She makes quite an entrance, dressed to the nines, full of bonhomie and largesse in the form of an assortment of gifts, including rum.
It is terrific entertainment from a very talented cast, deftly directed by Roy Alexander Weise, with evocative design by Rajha Shakiry, reminiscent of Mrs G’s living room. Perhaps most poignant of all are the moments when we hear of their more difficult times, all this with the Windrush travesty ringing in our ears. The last word goes to Auntie Maggie – “Gloria will need a new wig for the funeral…her (mash up) hair was like a bird’s nest!”. Best not speak ill of the dead; blame the rum.
Meanwhile Priscilla Pernod minces down memory lane…
1992, the year when Baz Luhrmann’s film, Strictly Ballroom (Piccadilly Theatre), burst into our lives. Described as a romantic comedy, I remember thinking I’ve never seen anything so camp and colourful (sheltered life) and this stage version, ‘The Musical, brings it all back with glorious gay abandon. Though calling it a musical is a little farfetched. Still let’s not split hairs about a production which does for ballroom dancing what John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John did for leather trousers in Grease.
Champion amateur ballroom dancer Scott (Jonny Labey) falls for novice Fran (Zizi Strallen), once she masters the steps. That’s pretty much all you need to know about the story, the rest is self-explanatory and mainly told through song and dance. It is slow to start but the energy changes palpably when we get to meet Fran’s parents and her father (Fernando Mira) executes a bullish Paso Doble, giving Scott a lesson in discipline and passion. He creates electricity and from that moment we are fully switched on. The most engaging, and funniest scenes are those that show the madness and fun with the Spanish family.
Will Young, a doppelgänger for Pancho Villa, is a wonderful narrator/compere, singing gorgeously, all styles coming naturally. Witney Houston will be smiling down on him. However, it is Strallen who dances off with the acting plaudits as she transforms from nerd into nubile temptress with steps to thrill. The ballroom scenes light up the production, spectacular costumes and dazzling lighting effects. Director and choreographer Drew McOnie wants us to revel in the dance and glitz. We do. This will make you clench your buttocks that much tighter next time you are on the dance floor.
Finally, Julie Gee finds a musical still making the right moves…
From the artery softening mountains of the dolomites to the powerful political arena of a chess match between Russia and America, this musical is pure excitement from beginning to end. Michael Ball and Alexandra Burke will leave you with goose bumps and it firmly puts Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson on the musical map of excellence.
Yes, Chess (London Coliseum) is back and despite the efforts of those miscreant Broadway critics to stale-mate its post-London (1984) New York run it remains a work of great depth with compositions to gladden your heart. The rousing I Know Him So Well remains a song of passion and intensity a female duet that will stand the test of time. The English National Opera chorus and orchestra are a fantastic asset to the production and although three hours may seem long, director Laurence Connor skilfully steers us through the twists and turns and themes that are potentially problematic. The design and lighting effects are spectacular. So, take that Broadway, London has check-mated you once again.
Nine Night – 020 7452 3000
Strictly Ballroom, The Musical – 0844 871 7630
Chess – 020 7845 9300
By Barney Efthimiou