Following a very successful run at the National Theatre, Nine Night has now made it to the West End; starting a stint at the stunning and awe-inspiring Trafalgar Studios.
Natasha Gordon’s debut play has received critical acclaim from the audience and critics alike, and she has been well rewarded for this by becoming the first black British female playwright to make it into the West End. Very recently also, Natasha Gordon won the Charles Wintour Award for most promising playwright at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for her debut work which premiered at the National Theatre earlier this year.
Nine Night is a poignant, yet punchy look at the mourning rituals of a Jamaican family in London. It mixes wonderfully two cultures and whilst the news is filled with talk of the Windrush Scandal the play takes extra meaning and resonance. In one scene, Aunt Maggie (Cecilia Noble) receives a huge laugh from the audience when she says that her Freedom Pass is “de only decent ting me get from dis teefing Government, an’ me intend to get full use outta it before me dead”.
The play captures wonderfully the tensions that can erupt in the wake of loss. Gloria, who is the family member who has passed away suddenly, came to Britain from Jamaica as a very young woman. Upon doing so she left behind a daughter called Trudy (played by Michelle Greenidge). She later had a further two children by another man and it’s their differences that help to drive the action forward. Lorraine (Franc Ashman), who gave up her job to help to look after her ill and dying mum is the foundation of the play and supplies the food that is part of the traditional nine-night celebration.
And then there is Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson). Robert is an entrepreneur; very much a go-getter who is married to a 45-year-old white teacher (Hattie Ladbury). Robert appears as a character who is very much impatient with the claims of the past.
Natasha Gordon has worked very hard and seems to naturally deal with the varying levels and layers of grief. One of my favourite scenes, and perhaps one of the sharpest of the play, involves all of the family arguing and disagreeing over the practical problems of the funeral. The play allows the viewer to think back to a grief that may resonate on a personal level and helps to share the mixture of comedy and sadness, the pride and the fear that we all feel during times such as these. Lorraine has a daughter, Anita (played by Rebekah Murrell) who takes the view that the whole nine-night wake is perhaps a bit extreme and appears skeptical about the whole thing; however is later moved by the whole sequence of events to believe in God. Even if only momentarily.
Aunt Maggie is a true cornerstone to the play and there is rarely a scene in which she does not steal it; she is the mainstay of the whole production. One scene in which the newly returned Trudy carries out a climatic ritual to supposedly release the spirit of the dead woman is very memorable. Gordon’s point about this is less about trying to make you believe it can work, but more about never abandoning inherited traditions just because modern and materialistic cultures have swept through a person’s beliefs.
This is a play in which family history is key, and the audience does have to pay close attention to the details to get caught up in the information. However, this makes for the fun of the play and once you have memorised the names and learned all you can then it helps the play flow in a wonderous flowing motion and you soon too become one of the family.
Roy Alexander Weise (The Ugly One, and Jekyll and Hyde) has created a production that has solid momentum and works well alongside Gordon to help to raise and talk about big issues through the power of laughter. Aunt Maggie is played phenomenally by Cecilia Noble and is truly a dominant force throughout; her belief system involving the restorative powers of chicken and Jesus is comedy gold, and the audience was nearly at tears of laughter when she said: “we don’t cook our people” when the family are discussing Gloria’s cremation. There has to be a direct mention for Franc Ashman too who plays Lorraine. Lorraine is a character that captivates the sadness of a loving daughter who was never truly loved and has a deep undertone of feeling angry at England for never wanting immigrants despite their support towards the economy, and Ashman plays this part near enough to perfection.
Both Oliver Alivin-Wilson and Hattie Ladbury, who play Robert and Sophie, make for a very plausible and believable couple. These characters alone help to show off the play’s subtlety that while she is loved and embraced by her inherited Jamaican family, Robert is somewhat upset and angry that he has never truly been accepted by Sophie’s mother and family.
The play itself is only 105 minutes long and makes for a refreshing and enjoyable watch for the entire audience. We found that Gordon’s writing is very specific and also universal. Family rivalries and plain-spoken elders are deeply recognisable no matter what your background is and they are beautifully and wonderfully done too. The play is deeply rooted in the British Jamaican experience and although is never not relevant is made more fresh and stark by the recent revelations of the Windrush Scandal.
All in all, this is a play that is ever so wonderful with a well-earned sense of confidence and the play can only thrive from that. Despite the move of theatre, the production has lost none of its power and in fact, has gained even more.