Leeds Playhouse 8 – 15 October, 2022, then Nottingham Playhouse from 19 October
Review by Colin Grant
‘The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,’ asserts Launcelot to Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. But what about the sins of the mother? Well, it seems that Jessica is damned in that department, too.
Such a notion animates Nine Night, Natasha Gordon’s dark comedy focused on the nine nights of grieving, feasting, singing and dancing that Jamaicans adhere to after the death of a loved one, or a not so loved one. At the start of the play the matriarch, Gloria, lies dying upstairs in her London home, nursed by her most dutiful adult daughter, Lorraine (Shereener Browne). Accenting her keen intelligence, Browne’s Lorraine bristles with weary resentment of her siblings – a sharp-suited, emotionally hollow entrepreneur Robert (Daniel Poyser) and Trudy (Andrea Davy) a gold shell-suited bon viveur – who have not carried their share of the burden of care for their ailing mother.
It would be an unfair criticism to make of Trudy as she resides 4,000 miles away in Jamaica. Resides is perhaps too weak a description. Trudy, who turns up in the latter half of the play, has stewed and festered all of her life in the Caribbean island of her birth. Five decades ago, Gloria left her eldest child in the care of grandparents because she could not afford the plane fare to bring her from Jamaica to Britain. She promised that one day, when she could afford to, she would ‘soon come’ for her daughter. But, as far as Trudy is concerned, her mother cruelly reneged on that promise; if it had been a promissory note then it was returned long ago, marked ‘insufficient funds’.
Trudy’s explosive and unbridled anger, triggered at any moment, is directed at her now deceased mother and proxies, her privileged, British-born siblings. But Trudy’s rage and unshakable belief in the primacy of her position in the hierarchy of suffering is contested by Robert and especially Lorraine.
Crafted like many classic family sagas set around births, weddings or funerals, Nine Night is a ghost story of the living and the dead; it’s also a crime story, a whodunit mystery where the crime is abandonment of a parent’s duty towards a child: whose version of the past is to be believed, mother’s or daughter’s? It’s also complicated by the Jamaican adage: ‘there are no facts; only versions.’
The play’s single set, a contemporary kitchen and dining room whose kitsch aesthetic – doilies on every surface, glass fish on cabinets, wicker chairs and colourised portraits – suggests an attempt to hold onto a diminishing Caribbean identity, is also a crucible of combustion (with the siblings tearing into each other) and confession.
Along the way Nine Night is punctuated by sharp and visceral comedy, most notably on the lips and in the actions of Aunt Maggie (played by Josephine Melville who died last week). A great comic actor, Melville played the part with salty and saucy relish; in her dotage now, with arthritic hips, Aunt Maggie may have a veneer of respectability but there are plenty of hints of Bacchanalian pleasure and sexual slackness in her past. Her mischievous humour is the engine that drives much of the broad comedic sketches. On hearing that her grandniece is breast-feeding her newborn baby, Maggie laments: ‘Poor t’ing must be longing fi a piece of chicken.’ Unreconstructed in her conservative views, there’s, nonetheless, sincerity in Maggie’s actions, a sense of duty as a carrier of the Jamaican tradition of ‘nine night’; especially the ceremonies around the departure or transition of the soul from this world to the next (including stripping Gloria’s mattress from the bed, and standing it up alongside a wall).
Aunt Maggie recognises that the old custom offers redemption, not just for the troubled soul of the deceased to be released on the final, ninth, night before burial; it is, perhaps, equally important for the survivors, the living, to lay to rest past transgressions and perceptions that have engulfed them and stymied their progress.
Ultimately, Nine Night illuminates the oft untold story of the psychological trauma of migration and separation; the price to be paid for the hard-nosed decision that privileges financial security over emotional harmony. It suggests at the end that mother and daughter, Gloria and Trudy, are both candidates for compassion, as it comes to a stark conclusion about migration, seemingly asking: who shall be unhappy if not everyone?
Photo by Sharron Wallace
Condolences to the family of Josephine Melville who died backstage during the run of Nine Night