Leeds Playhouse Amanda Huxtable directs the regional premiere of Natasha Gordon’s multigenerational play filled with conflict and grief
N atasha Gordon’s multigenerational family drama captures the experience of being caught between two worlds – past and present, Jamaica and Britain. In the new production at Leeds Playhouse, this sense of existing between places is inscribed on Emma Williams’s set. A backdrop suggesting a lush Caribbean landscape is the container for all the homely details of departed matriarch Gloria’s London house. This is the setting for the titular nine night: a traditional Jamaican wake, during which family tensions rise.
It’s exciting to see Gordon’s acclaimed play revived outside London just four years after its premiere. The most compelling scenes in this packed hour and 45 minutes involve Gloria’s two younger children, each with their own response to the loss of their mother. Shereener Browne’s dutiful Lorraine is a coiled spring, tight with contained grief just waiting to explode, while Robert (Daniel Poyser) copes by turning his attention to the sale of Gloria’s house. The way in which Lorraine’s forthright daughter Anita (Jessica Whitehurst) needles at her uncle is equally convincing, as are the attempts of Jo Mousley’s Sophie – Robert’s wife – to defuse the conflict.
At the heart of the ritual is Maggie, Gloria’s cousin and the family’s main link back to tradition and spirituality. This character has a lot to carry – not to mention delivering the best of the play’s sparky one-liners. Despite all the energy she brings to the stage, Josephine Melville sometimes struggles to pull this off without simply making Maggie into a figure of fun. Likewise, we don’t quite get enough of a sense of older sibling Trudy (Andrea Davy), the child Gloria left behind in Jamaica when she made a new life in the UK.
The nine night celebrations occur mostly offstage, occasionally erupting into the drama – most notably when Maggie’s husband, Vince (Wayne Rollins), breaks into a scene-stealing dance. The comings and goings of a community cast suggest the raucous gathering in the next room, but this device feels a little awkward and underused. Similarly, there’s a certain tentativeness to Amanda Huxtable’s production, which is still finding its rhythm.
At Leeds Playhouse until 15 October, then at Nottingham Playhouse, 19 October-5 November