According to Hercule Porto, the most likely time for one family member to kill another is during the Christmas holiday. Whilst I’ve never felt the urge to kill any members of my family over the Yuletide period I can understand his reasoning. However, any family get-together is fraught with potential danger and this is the central theme to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse.
In a lovely old plantation house in Arkansas, the Lafayette family is gathering following the death of their father to settle the estate. Frank (Edward Hogg) and his girlfriend River (Tafline Steen) enter the old home via the window. Frank has been estranged from his family for many years due to some major personal issues in his life, and is hoping to arrive before the others. What he doesn’t know is that his older sister Toni (Monica Dolan) and her troubled son Rhys (Charles Furness) have already arrived and Toni is none too pleased to see her ‘prodigal’ brother. Mind you, if Toni is upset, that is nothing to the reaction of brother Bo (Steven Mackintosh) who arrives the next morning with wife Rachael (Jaimi Barbakoff), thirteen-year-old daughter Cassidy (Isabella Pappas) and eight-year-old son Ainsley (Orlando Roddy/Oliver Savell). Each member of the family has returned to the house with an agenda of their own, which doesn’t help when family tensions are already running high with Bo annoyed at Toni – Toni annoyed with Bo and both of them annoyed with Frank. Whilst Toni doesn’t hold back in expressing her feelings, especially when her father’s reputation is questioned, an innocent-looking picture book becomes the spark that lights the fire of accusations and recriminations that threaten to destroy the family once and for all.
When I read the press release for Appropriate I wasn’t too sure this was my sort of thing. Two hours of American family angst didn’t feel like the basis of a good trip to the theatre. Well, I’m happy to say I was completely wrong about that. For a play dealing with all kinds of issues, there are a lot of really funny moments. It’s not often that a production covering such a vast array of subjects – paedophilia, rape, drug and alcohol abuse, fascism, etc – can have me laughing out loud one minute, then swallowing a lump in my throat the next. In fact, Branden has a great time playing with the audience, switching emotional states at the drop of a hat. Not content with putting one of the ultimate dysfunctional families on the stage, Branden also adds a lovely touch of the supernatural to the proceedings leaving you wondering if the house is haunted by the ghosts of Lafayette’s and their slaves buried in the grounds of the house.
A very powerful cast, led by Monica Dolan as Toni brings the story to life in real style. Toni could be horribly over the top but Dolan really showcases Toni’s overbearing personality – she is definitely a Southern matriarch in waiting – but also, particularly in the second act, underlines it with a real sense of vulnerability and need to be loved. It’s an amazing performance that is totally captivating from curtain-up to mass applause at the end. In fact, the whole cast really are superb and the theatrical talent shines through. I am going to mention Jaimi Barbakoff as well here for her portrayal of Rachael. For much of the play, Rachael is almost a Stepford wife type character, but by God, when she lets go, she really lets go. Suddenly, this mild creature is spewing forth words you wouldn’t imagine her knowing let alone screaming like an enraged fishwife at Toni. A brilliant performance from Barbakoff.
Designer Fly Davis must have had a wonderful time putting the set together. Think of an episode of ‘Hoarders’ but with a far more eclectic taste. So piles of games consoles, rub shoulders with stuffed animals of every species. Hoards of candlesticks sit on a plethora of side and occasional tables. You get the picture. And this leads me to give a huge round of applause to the crew, under Stage Manager Lizzie Donaghy, who did a fantastic job resetting the stage during the 20-minute interval. Their movements as well choreographed as a dance, they picked up, packed, removed, re-arranged and reset the stage in superb style, all in front of the audience members that didn’t pop out for a quick drink.
Overall, Appropriate is a really great play. The story is fascinating and the production is first-rate. Whilst not all the questions raised are answered, on the whole, this feels right. I did feel at times that story intensity dropped occasionally, but on the whole, it really kept me enthralled and interested all the way through. Not the traditional Great American Family story, Appropriate takes that genre, plays with it and makes it something new and very exciting.
Review by Terry Eastham
So I thought, since we can’t do Europe this summer, why don’t the kids and I just do a little Southern History road trip? We’re going to drive back home through Mississippi, Louisiana – all those places – experience some of Daddy’s heritage.
The Lafayette family gather at their late father’s home in Arkansas to bury the hatchet and prepare the former plantation for its Estate Sale. Until, that is, they make a discovery which changes everything.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes on the rich tradition of American family drama in his gripping play about ghosts and the legacies we are left with. Ola Ince directs APPROPRIATE in its UK premiere at the Donmar.
Director Ola Ince
Designer Fly Davis
Lighting Designer Anna Watson
Sound Designer Donato Wharton
Casting Director Julia Horan CDG
Cast: Monica Dolan (Toni Lafayette), Jaimi Barbakoff (Rachael Kramer-Lafayette), Charles Furness (Rhys Thurston), Edward Hogg (Franz Lafayette), Steven Mackintosh (Bo Lafayette), Isabella Pappas (Cassidy Kramer-Lafayette), Orlando Roddy (Ainsley Kramer-Lafayette), Oliver Savell (Ainsley Kramer-Lafayette) and Tafline Steen (River Rayner).
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Friday 16 August – Saturday 5 October 2019