The whole show is set in the kitchen of a London home, although some scene changes still take a little time, as there are props that need shifting. Audiences at Nine Night do not see the funeral of Lorraine’s (Natasha Gordon) mother Gloria: just as well, as someone with Caribbean roots said to me afterwards, as the play runs without an interval. (I’ve been to one such funeral before – it was fairly elaborate and went on for hours with all the various tributes, hymns, songs and speeches. They were kind enough to feed us at the end.)
Lorraine, having become the full-time carer to her mother during her final months, now finds herself hosting the extended family for a period of nine nights (hence the show’s title) during which there is food, booze and party music made available, because the emphasis is on celebrating the deceased’s life rather than merely expressing sadness and condolences. On the ninth night, it is said that the spirit of the person who has died says goodbye to everyone who has come to their home to pay their respects that evening, before leaving and continuing to the afterlife.
Gloria does so, but not in the way that would be reasonably expected: her son Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) almost immediately freaks out. Aunt Maggie (Cecilia Noble) and Uncle Vince (Karl Collins) – aunt and uncle to Lorraine (there’s a handy family tree in the show’s programme for anyone who would like a reminder of who is related to whom) – are, in very different ways, breaths of fresh air.
Maggie, in particular, brought the house down again and again with a refreshing forthrightness. An example: she turns down the offer of a lift because she wishes to get the maximum use out of her Freedom Pass, “the only decent ting me get from this teefing Government”. Her husband often (but by no means always) bears the brunt of an acerbic wit, and sometimes a facial expression is all it takes to raise the roof of the Trafalgar Studios once more. And then, aghast that Gloria had apparently thought about possibly being cremated, Maggie is having none of it. “We don’t cook our people.”
Then there’s Anita (Rebekah Murrell), Lorraine’s daughter, who is trying to mix childcare responsibilities for her own daughter with helping her mum out with the miscellaneous arrangements. Robert, meanwhile, makes himself thoroughly dislikeable with such a materialistic mindset, even whilst people are still grieving – he goes after Lorraine even after she categorically tells him that ‘now’ (that is, whilst preparations for the ninth night are ongoing) is not an appropriate time for discussions about selling Gloria’s house. Elsewhere, Vince says it like it is, telling Robert that while he is free to (proverbially) burn his money any way he chooses, if he burns bridges, well, “game done”.
Trudy (Michelle Greenidge) and Sophie (Hattie Ladbury) have their own stories to tell. The former, a half-sister to Lorraine and Robert, ends up crying the loudest tears, and not just because Gloria is in a better place. The latter, Robert’s wife, is a little caricatured, or rather her mother is, holding an outmoded attitude towards her white daughter being married to a black man. Many of the topics and themes brought out are ones that a lot of people can identify with – things that have been kept secret, under the surface, cannot help but be exposed in an environment where familiarity breeds contempt and unfamiliarity tends to do the same.
One need not, of course, be of Jamaican heritage to understand the problems faced by the likes of Lorraine, straddling the British way of life with Caribbean traditions that her relations insist Gloria would have wanted to be respected. “I’m going to bring my family to see this,” one lady said after the show. I hope she does, and I hope you get to see this show too – a truly remarkable, hilarious and poignant piece of theatre.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Nine Night, Natasha Gordon’s critically acclaimed play transfers from the National Theatre to the Trafalgar Studios on 1 December 2018 (press night 6 December) in a co-production with Trafalgar Theatre Productions.
Natasha Gordon who won the Charles Wintour award for Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, plays the role of Lorraine in her debut play. She is joined by Oliver Alvin-Wilson (Robert), Michelle Greenidge (Trudy), Hattie Ladbury (Sophie), Rebekah Murrell (Anita) and Cecilia Noble (Aunt Maggie) who return to their celebrated NT roles, and Karl Collins (Uncle Vince) who completes the West End cast.
Directed by Roy Alexander Weise (The Mountaintop), Nine Night is a touching and exuberantly funny exploration of the rituals of family. Gloria is gravely sick. When her time comes, the celebration begins; the traditional Jamaican Nine Night Wake. But for Gloria’s children and grandchildren, marking her death with a party that lasts over a week is a test. Nine rum-fuelled nights of music, food, storytelling and laughter – and an endless parade of mourners.
a new play by Natasha Gordon
1 December 2018 – 23 February 2019
Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, Westminster, London SW1A 2DY