at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 18th April 2012
When Errol John won the Observer New Play prize in 1957 for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, the British theatre scene was all but devoid of theatre representing working class life. The prize, set up by Kenneth Tynan following the trickle of exciting new plays following Look Back in Anger, would aim to bring a playwright to the fore who showed an audience the lives of ordinary people. In Michael Buffong’s production at the National Theatre, we see the beautiful subtlety of John’s obliquely feminist text, and are reminded of how important it is not to drop the banner of plays putting the lives of the majority on stage.
John’s play follows the lives of the inhabitants of a small yard in Trinidad over the course of forty-eight hour. The various men are suffering from bouts of worthlessness whilst the women hold the community together. Ephraim (Danny Sapani), wo seems to be modelled at least partly on Jimmy Porter, and who has ambitions to emigrate to Liverpool, feels stifled by his town and girlfriend Rosa, whilst it is partly his own melancholia which had led to this depression. At the heart of the community lies Sophia Adams (Martina Laird), who acts as mother, sister, daughter and lover variously to those around her as it becomes clear a local shop has been robbed. This description does her injustice, however, for she is by no means defined by those around her; she stands alone as an independent entity, and is given an extraordinarily strong voice.
In Buffong’s production, the beauty of John’s language is contained in Soutra Gilmour’s homely, secluded set (though the yard it represents does feel a little too ordered), is mixed with an authentic soundtrack (Pepe Francis) and rich, nostalgic lighting (Johanna Town). We are shown a picture of a community which, nuance aside, could be any on earth. Ordinary working people go about their daily business and understand that an affinity with their roots is essential, even though it can bring both joy and pain.
Forgetting a few questionable accents, we are treated to a fantastic cast who clearly have such admiration and empathy for their characters we cannot help but feel for every one of them. Sapani’s performance manages to steer clear from being a tormented, tortured soul and instead shows a truthful vision of a young man struggling to find his way in the world and understanding the unfortunate nature of his status in society. Jenny Jules’ Mavis, the woman from across the way with ambiguous sexual morality, offers some humour, and is offset by Jade Anouka’s calm, attentive Rosa. Jude Akuwudike as Charlie, Sophia’s husband and Esther’s (the energetic Tahirah Sharif) father, is a man stuck in a rut but who manages to contain his fury by caring passionately for his family. Laird’s Sophia is astonishing in its detail, and is filled with such extraordinary love for those dear to her that its unsurprising things turn out the way they do. She will no doubt be overlooked at awards season next year, but she should damn well be on those shortlists.
Whilst we are lucky in the twenty-first century to have a greater abundance of working-class plays in production, if Sundays Oliviers prove anything other than the fact Matilda is pretty good, it is that the mainstream is lacking the same sort of voices which epitomised the new wave in the 50s and 60s. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl shows just how universal these plays can be, and Buffong’s simple production takes pleasure in the ability of those living ordinary lives to take part in extraordinary narratives.