Written in 2018, Nine Night is the first play by a black British female writer to be staged in the West End. Given the themes, the intellect and the emotion of the play, it does not come as a surprise that the production has had a run in the West End; what is surprising though that it took until 2018 (just 4 years ago!) for a black British female playwright (Natasha Gordon) to have her play in the West End!
I’ll give you a second to digest that fact…and now to the plot. The play is an emotional and hilarious glimpse into the Jamaican tradition of Nine Night, where death is celebrated with nine nights of music, storytelling, dancing and, very importantly, rum! It is left to the family of the deceased Gloria to organise this custom and the play holds up a mirror to a family under the pressure of bereavement and general life.
There is a small ensemble cast of just 7 actors, and their closeness and ease around each other leads me to believe that the family enacted on stage is replicated backstage, and this is a heart-warming thought. A community cast adds texture to the proceedings, and while used sparingly, their presence, essentially as acquaintances who interrupt private conversations just by simply walking into the room, is just one of the elements of comedy in this production.
However, the main source of the many, many laugh out loud moments in Nine Night is because of the excellent delivery and exact comedic timing of Aunt Maggie (Josephine Melville). Maggie is an interfering, know-it-all, loud, demanding catastrophizer – you know who I mean; all families have one. Maggie tells us that you “don’t mess with Jamaican tradition” as she defends her beliefs about the afterlife and religion. She is at odds with other members of the family, and to be honest, I can see why, but as an audience member, I just love her. She is who she is and she won’t apologise for that. Being brash and loud for the majority of the play, when Maggie sings a mournful a cappella, it is beautifully poignant, and her wholehearted transformation into a vessel for the deceased Gloria is captivating.
Initially presented as Maggie’s long-suffering husband, Vince (Wayne Rollins) is the calm, steadfast saviour who sees the good in everyone. You know who I mean; all families have one. Rollins’ chemistry with Melville is undeniable and, as a duo, they perfectly compliment each other. Just look out for Rollins’ dancing – it’s a scene stealer to be sure!
Holding everything together is Lorraine (Shereener Browne) and while Maggie brings the chaos and Vince brings the sense, Lorraine is the calm…or is she? Lorraine is a doer, she organises Nine Night in honour of her late mother, she cooks, she cleans, she plans the funeral, she writes the eulogy. You know who I mean; all families have one. She is a daughter for Gloria to be proud of, but there’s something missing… Lorraine is an empty shell, almost on autopilot, refusing to let her mother go, and desperately seeking to communicate with her spirit to make sure she has been enough of a daughter to her mother. Browne’s portrayal, is purposefully vacant for the majority of the play, but her monologue at the end absolutely reduced me to tears. If one thing unites us, it’s fear of losing a loved one; playwright Natasha Gordon pulls hard on this heartstring, and Browne’s portrayal snaps it.
Lorraine’s emotional outburst is expected, but how she didn’t snap at the treatment by her brother Robert (Daniel Poyser) is a mystery. He is nothing short of cruel towards Lorraine and takes every opportunity to bring her down, probably to mask his own shortcomings (you know who I mean; all families have one), which do come out during the course of the play, and Poyser plays vulnerable as well as he plays the man who seemingly has it all. His guttural “no no no no” as his mother dies off stage will stay with me for a long time. Robert’s wife, Sophie (Jo Mousley) tries incredibly hard as a white woman to fit into this family. Two of her lines stick in my mind (but I won’t spoil them), one of which brought the biggest laugh of the night, and one the biggest gasp of shock. Sophie is a people pleaser – and you know who I mean; all families have one.
As the youngest member of the onstage family, Anita (Jessica Whitehurst) represents a future away Jamaican tradition, and this puts her into conflict with Maggie and Robert. She sees herself as self-empowered rather than a radical (you know who I mean; all families have one) and at times it almost seems as if there is a physical divide on the stage between tradition and progression, and between practical and emotional. Whitehurst presents a relatable character who begins to see that tradition can have a place in the modern world, and some of this is due to the introduction of the final family member direct from Jamaica. Trudy (Andrea Davy) is definitely more Maggie than Lorraine in character, but with Robert’s chip on the shoulder, and Vince’s love of rum. She is a whirlwind who doesn’t quite fit in and has been unable to move away from the trauma of her past. While on the surface, Day presents a jolly character, there is something subtle in her portrayal that means that I never truly trust or accept her into this family. She is somewhat of an outcast, and again, you know who I mean; all families have one.
While this is a Jamaican family, taking part in a Jamaican tradition, this could be ANY family. The characters, tensions and alliances are highly recognisable. The play is set in just one room of the house, the kitchen (the heart of the home) and could be the kitchen belonging to any family. The set design (Simisola Majekodunmi) is really impressive, and feels like it’s been lifted whole onto the Playhouse stage. While the play centres around Gloria, she is not the focus of the plot, perhaps indicated in set design by the fact that her photograph is on a side wall. The play is about people and relationships and importantly, the meaning of family.
It’s a cliché, but you really will laugh (a lot) and cry (tenderly) at this beautifully written and lovingly directed (Amanda Huxtable) play.