Anita is spooning a powder into a cup in a way that betrays this must be done just so. She pours on the kettle water, stirs it, but is unable to find a straw and is forced to call upstairs to check if a spoon is suitable.
The last time I remember seeing an old lady’s Complan discussed onstage was in Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Nastasha Gordon’s Nine Night bears further similarities to McDonagh’s writing with its dark humour in the face of exploring family ties and history, and death.
Nine Night transferred from the National Theatre and is now playing in the Trafalgar Studios’ intimate-feeling main space. The transfer makes Natasha Gordon the first British black woman to have a play on the West End, with the playwright taking the role of Lorraine in this production.
Her play explores the Jamaican tradition of nine nights of mourning following the death of Gloria, mother to Lorraine, Robert and the absent Trudy. The set is a dated but orderly old lady’s kitchen which gradually fills with more flowers, food, people and rum as the play progresses.
If Anita, Lorraine’s daughter, is removed from the Jamaican traditions by having grown up in England, Robert’s wife Sophie is even more so as a white, middle-class music teacher who has married in to the family. We glimpse the difficulties the couple have faced in their relationship when Robert says her mum looked at him ‘like an animal’ on their first meeting.
At the end of night one Anita storms back in the kitchen asking ‘how many nights?!’ She rails against the label ‘radical’ while she forces the world to question its view of her race and her youth. She battles the older generation’s recommendations on what her baby should be eating (chicken wings rather than breastmilk) and is told by her mother that if she turns up the following day looking like the Krusty the clown again, she’ll leave looking like the dalai lama.
The humour in the play isn’t just in the script, but in stand-out performances by Michelle Greenidge and Cecilia Noble as Trudy and Aunt Maggie respectively.
The characters discuss their grief, their identity, and their past in this beautiful play full of ups and downs, tears and laughter, dancing and fighting.
When she does arrive, Trudy’s entrance is just what it’s been hyped up to be – she’s beloved by everyone except Robert and Lorraine and brings with her the Jamaican sunshine in gifts of mangos, yams and, of course, rum. There is a devastating scene in which the siblings explore their family history, and the actions of their now departed mother when she left Jamaica for London.
It’s not the only hazy detail from the past that surfaces, in a play which masterfully explores the complexities of family relationships and belonging. Under Roy Alexander Weise’s direction we are taken through decades and across oceans while never leaving one little London kitchen.
Feature images shows Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Natasha Gordon, Rebekah Murrell, Karl Collins and Cecilia Noble in Nine Night, photo credit: Helen Murray, with thanks.