Nine Night at the National Theatre
Maybe more than anything, the way we treat our dead reveals the core of any culture. The pressures of these traditions can be both a great burden and an enormous comfort in times of grief; a roadmap when you’re at your most lost, but one that can feel suffocating to follow. Natasha Gordon’s debut play Nine Night is an uproarious – and deeply moving – exploration of exactly that: the trials we go through to honour our dearly departed.
When Gloria dies, so begins the traditional Jamaican nine-night wake, a chance for her family and friends to mourn. And celebrate. And eat. And drink. Not that these things spring up unattended. As is always the case, daughter Lorraine (Franc Ashman) is left to do the heavy lifting, but not without hearing the opinions of her insistent Aunt Maggie (Cecilia Noble) and Uncle Vince (Ricky Fearon), her unhelpful brother Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and her own child Anita (Rebekah Murrell).
Nine Night is proper funny. Even Rajha Shakiry’s set feels pulled out of a multi-cam sitcom, a warm kitchen space which is clearly the heart of the home. Though Roy Alexander Weise’s production can be a tad broad at times – again, that multi-cam vibe – at its best it’s real belly laughter stuff. And Noble’s Maggie is the glorious, superlative centre. She is a riot from the moment she steps on the stage: nose-wrinkled, judgements, put-downs and an amen always ready to spring from her lips. She’s not alone; the whole cast are consistently a hoot – especially when estranged sister Trudy (Michelle Greenidge) turns up, bringing a taste of Jamaica with her.
It’s not all giggles, however. As the drama goes on Gordon complicates the grief beyond the initial gut punch of loss, having Lorraine and her siblings grapple with the failings of their mother and the varying ways she treated her children. The drama builds to a scene of spirituality played deadly serious – arguably a surprise given the general tone of the piece – resulting in a moment of genuine catharsis that is nevertheless absolutely crushing.
It’s also worth stating, again, that the Dorfman is so many light years ahead of its Olivier and Lyttelton peers in terms of quality that it’s bonkers to think they fall under the same artistic directorship. But it’s clear where the difference lies. While one gets a bin bag Macbeth and the other gets a tedious “forgotten classic” in Absolute Hell, the Dorfman is consistently programming bolder, fresher, more vital voices. And it’s not just on stage; you can feel the difference in the room. So yes, well done National Theatre for putting on something like Nine Night (or The Great Wave, or Barber Shop Chronicles, or John). But shame on you for not putting them in a bigger space.
Photo: Helen Murray
Nine Night is at the National Theatre from 24th April until 25th May 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.