Nine Night, National Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

A riotous party is heard offstage and the cheerfully vintage, open-plan kitchen we see is full of food and drink. But this London home isn’t hosting any old house party. It’s a customary Jamaican wake following Gloria’s death, and three generations of her family have gathered to mourn. As they wrestle with grief, tradition clashes with modern Britain in Natasha Gordon’s kitchen sink drama that bounces from hilarity to gravity and back again.

Gloria’s live-in daughter Lorraine (an intense and complex Franc Ashman), who had given up her job to care for her dying mother, has little patience for the nine-night tradition that’s far removed from the England she grew up in. Her grown daughter Anita (a fiery Rebekah Murrell) isn’t keen, either. Overbearing Aunt Maggie (Cecilia Noble) and her quiet husband Vince (Ricky Fearon) refuse to accept anything other than all the traditional trappings. It’s in this clash between the diaspora and the homeland that conflict and comedy arise. Gordon’s intimate, adept script turns on a dime, dodging and weaving through a landscape of both hilarity and pain. It’s hugely effective in its ability to both amuse and tug the heartstrings.

Structurally, there’s a nod to white, male realism – Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill spring to mind, and Gordon’s claim to the form should be celebrated. Unapologetic in it’s use of patois, the story reflects a rich, distinctive culture inadequately represented on our stages.

There are some shortcomings, though. The subplot between Lorraine’s brother Robert and his wife Sophie is underwritten and eventually forgotten, and comic relief Aunt Maggie is underdeveloped and almost solely played for laughs. Gordon gifts her with a remarkable finale that surprises, but fizzles out abruptly.

Director Roy Alexander Weise, again proving himself a master of pacing and tension, displays an innate instinct for letting the play breathe that was also on show in his recent Br’er Cotton at Theatre503. The naturalistic set and lighting by Rajha Shakiry and Paule Constable make a warm, welcoming home that is detailed and lived-in.

It’s momentous indeed to see a debut work at the National and this excellent production, in all the clamour for a National Theatre that actually reflects the demographics of the nation, hopefully indicates change is afoot. Bravo to Rufus Norris for listening to those of us demanding a diverse and vibrant theatre showcasing the stories of all of this country’s people, not just the white male ones.

Nine Night runs through 26 May.

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