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Review of Nine Night at the National Theatre | Dorfman Theatre

Nine Night at the National Theatre (c) Helen Murray
Nine Night at the National Theatre (c) Helen Murray

What a send-off! Nine nights of mourning which include music (loud), dancing (wild), rum, special bakings, rum, poems, more rum and a clear determination to have a great time: great for everyone – except perhaps the neighbours. If this were a sport it would be classified as “extreme mourning” and for those of Jamaican heritage and tradition then it’s a natural way to say goodbye to a loved one and let them out of the house to send them on their spiritual way. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and with members of the extended family all under one roof for a change, emotions are raw, feelings are fragile and old disputes and rivalries and deep-seated resentments are likely to rise to the surface.

Natasha Gordon’s excellent new play (her first) gets the full measure of this scenario presenting a closely-knit- but-unravelling family of suspicious love and proxy war. Matriarch Gloria dies unseen upstairs leaving her exhausted carer, daughter Lorraine, to manage the mourning period whilst fending off the less-than-helpful contributions of relations who now turn up en masse as well as to protect her mother’s heritage from the circling vultures (mainly brother/son Robert). Franc Ashman’s portrayal of Lorraine is delicately intense and authentically touching as she navigates the family minefield whilst desperately trying to hold onto her own equilibrium. It’s the most effective – and affecting – performance I’ve seen on stage this year and her extraordinary talent holds the unshakeable axis as the play swerves dramatically from unabashed sentimentality through fervent emotion to high farce.

Ashman is aided in her work by fireball Michelle Greenidge as Trudy, half-sister, who turns up from the Caribbean to pour petrol on the eager embers of family disputes. Aunt Maggie (Cecilia Noble) is Mama Sarcasm on speed who tells it how it is and is oblivious to the consequences. Her one-liners provide a through-running cache of humour in the play and no-one’s going to be drifting off – on stage or off – whilst Aunt Maggie is holding her larger-than-life court. As her husband, Uncle Vince, Ricky Fearon nicely underplays his second fiddle and comes into his own with his personal low-key interpretation of solo daggering during a scene-change which draws squeals of delight from the audience – particularly when he extracts a handkerchief from his pocket and mops his brow. (Not found anyone who can explain that one to me yet so please feel free to make use of the comments below).

Brother/son Robert, played commandingly by Oliver Alvin-Wilson, has his issues – with his marriage, with his finances and with his business deals and can’t wait to get his hands on his Mother’s house – much to Lorraine’s disgust and chagrin. His wife, Sophie, is sympathetically played by Hattie Ladbury who, as the only white person in the clan, doesn’t seem to know exactly how to fit in with the extreme Jamaicanism – until, that is, she comes up with a funny quip about black women’s behinds that convinces Trudy, in particular, that “she’s all right”. Rebekah Murrell takes the role of Anita, Lorraine’s daughter, whose husband we do not meet but we hear much about her nine-month-old daughter Rosa. Anita is a campaigning Millennial who won’t take no for an answer and probably won’t take yes, either, leading her into conflict with her uncle Robert in particular. Excellent work by Murrell – she and Ashman create a convincing and authentic mother-daughter relationship.

For what is potentially quite a sprawling show, director Roy Alexander Weise keeps a firm grip whilst allowing the characters and relationships to thrive and blossom and he is adept at ensuring the full humour of the piece is realised. Writer Gordon has a great ear for dialogue and Weise ensures that his cast is not inhibited in its interpretation. Rajha Shakiry’s fully-functional- kitchen set is a masterpiece, lit effectively by Paule Constable and George Dennis’s sound is suitably complementary to the London-Jamaican setting.

It’s not often you come away from a play having fully enjoyed it but also feeling you have learnt a lot. I didn’t know about nine night and neither had a full appreciation of the traditional Jamaican concept of the “living dead” – the departed’s dying process is not complete until the spirit is set free – as happens in the powerful denouement of the play. The themes of death and renewal are dealt with compassionately by Gordon whilst delicately poking fun at her own ethnic heritage. Nine Night makes you laugh and makes you cry and ultimately makes you marvel at the rich panoply of the human condition. With the modern world’s gradual dissipation of Jamaican cultural rites and traditions, Gordon’s play gives us a valuable historical document, a resource for generations to come. Given that, it may be a little sacrilegious of me to say so, but whilst watching Nine Night the word Ayckbournesque kept popping into my mind.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

Roy Alexander Weise directs Natasha Gordon’s debut play Nine Night is a touching and very 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 nights of music, food, sharing stories – and an endless parade of mourners.

The cast includes Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Franc Ashman, Ricky Fearon, Michelle Greenidge, Hattie Ladbury, Rebekah Murrell and Cecilia Noble.

Design by Rajha Shakiry, with lighting design by Paule Constable, sound design by George Dennis and movement direction by Shelley Maxwell.

Nine Night
a new play by Natasha Gordon
Now playing until 26 May
Running Time: Approx. 1 hour 45 mins no interval


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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