Adult supervision, if you remember, is what Barack Obama said Washington needed. This was back in 2006, two years before his election as forty-fourth president of the US, and the first black incumbent of the office. So there could hardly be a more timely moment than now for a play bearing his words as its title, with America once more squeezing through one of its congressional crises which baffle the world with their apparent childishness.
What’s more, Sarah Rutherford’s play is set on that giddy evening five years ago when the votes were counted, the unthinkable happened and a black American family prepared to move into the White House. So the joyful political liberation plays out as a running backdrop to the get-together of the four youngish women on whom we are here to eavesdrop. More a frontdrop actually, since the TV is situated on the fourth wall, which means they gawp and whoop at us as the results of the count come in. It is as if we are making our own fleeting guest appearances at the unfolding drama.
Our hostess is the controlling Natasha, lawyer turned full-time mother who loses no opportunity for trumpeting the moral virtue of her career shift. Her children are a statement in their own right; she is white and they are black, the fruits of an adoption mission to Ethiopia. One of her guests is the angry Mo, whose husband is black; another is Issy, Natasha’s supposed best friend; the third, and only black woman is the heavily pregnant Angela. In Natasha’s patronising, or matronising vision, the four of them are bonded by their commitment to mixed-race progeny.
Even to write “mixed race” here takes us straight into the minefield which the play is, well, mining. Correctness, the unspoken tyrant, is so vigilant that you really can’t open your mouth on the subject of that proscribed word ethnicity without putting your foot in it. Because it’s cool to be – oh, spit it out – black in this, erm, evolving London suburb that such people move from being fashionable fellow pram-parkers at Starbucks after the school run to be being colourful (there) additions to your girls’ nights in.
Which raises the question: where are the children? Well, the Ethiopian-sourced ones are in bed, at the wrong end of Natasha’s baby com. They are the conscripts in a Thatcheresque project of self-sufficiency. Most of the others appear to be camping out on the common with various of the women’s partners, providing a subplot which begins as a distant cloud no bigger than a man’s fist but then moves into the heart, and hearth of the matter. The personal is, of course political, as these girls – sorry, women – might already have gathered through or in spite of their Seventies/Eighties mothering. But tonight the political is personal; how can it not be on an evening when the dream figure of Obama is being raised up as a living, breathing and speaking totem pole to this Luther Kinglike banishment of impossibility.
The four are drinking Natasha’s specially concocted Obamatinis. As it takes hold and the home (not to mention overseas) truths come tumbling out, the body language gets screaming. If they were to christen the dancing that goes with the drink, it could be the Yes We Cancan.
As with, for example, Mike Leigh’s comedies of domestic embarrassment, we can’t leave. But then we wouldn’t want to. Would we? I mean, how weird that everyone’s so shocked by Angela’s brief flirtation with – and here’s a plonking word – lesbianism. And while we’re on the subject of Angela, who, actually, is the father, if that’s not too bourgeois a question?
Watching the four actors – nearly said actresses – getting into their stride was also weird. As in Weird Sisters. They’re getting into a kind of routine, in which the power of the unit is intended to be greater than the sum of its parts; but then it all starts to fall apart as the grim old forces of jealousy, insecurity and, yes, low self-esteem, barge in like gatecrashers and demand a reckoning. To begin with I thought that three of the four – Susannah Doyle as Natasha, Olivia Poulet as Official Best Friend Izzy and Amy Robbins as the overbearing Mo – were anxious in their roles; perhaps somehow awkward with the people they were embodying. Wrong; this was the portrayal, and the portrayal only, of social terrors – some of them too engrained to dismiss, others made all the more frightening through unknown quantity. Then in comes black Angela (a poised and powerful Jaqueline Boatswain) with a more organic sense of her own identity than the rest combined, and much is explained.
Rutherford’s anatomising of the implications of race in these particular pockets is both vivid and thorough. No lead goes unfollowed; no consequence unrecorded. This is both a strength, placing and grounding the confrontations, but it is also a liability; slightly too many moments in which each woman takes the figurative stand to declare her position. This results, almost inevitably, in rather more telling than showing.
Still, in a play whose action consists of people examining the positions of others, you could argue that the telling is the showing. One of the strands which emerges most tellingly is that of Izzy’s despair at falling through the old English hierarchy from some acceptable middling position to one at the bottom of the cruelly reshuffled pile. Her failing, she realises, is her complete absence of colour. She is barren of exoticism and it just isn’t fair.
In Jez Bond’s taut direction, these parallel stories of an American black man’s ascent to the summit of the world and a white girl’s tumble to the foot of it become linked by more than the mere fact of their inclusion in the same play.
This was my first trip to the new Park Theatre, but not my last, I hope. No less than Angela’s, its appearance is confident and, given the recession, warming. It is as unexpected as Park Walk, the wonderful footpath that takes off through a gap opposite the station. In you go and it’s another world
Review by Alan Franks @alanfranks
Adult Supervision by Sarah Rutherford
Directed by Jez Bond
Designed by Janet Bird
Lighting by Julian McCready
Sound by Theo Holloway
Casting by Lucy Jenkins and Sooki McShane
Assistant Director Holly Race Roughan
Dates: 8th October – 3rd November
Performances Tuesday – Saturday evenings 19.30 Saturday & Sunday matinees 15.00
Prices Adults £19.50, Concessions £16
£12 Tuesdays for N4 residents and for under 25s (proof required)
Running Time 2 hours (including a 15 minute interval)
Park Theatre website at http://parktheatre.co.uk/
Sunday 20th October 2013