Appropriate at Donmar Warehouse
Deer skulls and stuffed birds. Stocky TVs. An open box of Fruit Loops. Armoires, cluttered tables, filthy frames. Chairs and chairs but with nowhere to sit. 20 years of hoarded history and meaningless junk. And a photo album.
The Lafayettes have descended on their father’s crumbling plantation, intending to get things in order ahead of an auction and estate sale. Franz (Edward Hogg), absent for a decade. Bo (Steven Mackintosh), his dwindling money a shield. Toni (Monica Dolan), the ever-loyal daughter, bearing the burden of the family. We know the script: secrets leak out, resentments are aired, relationships break down.
Structurally, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate is an immediately familiar part of that rich canon of white American family dramas. Awful people, being awful to each other due to their own personal hurts. However, this well-worn narrative is placed in the context of another, much older American – and, let’s be honest, equally British – tradition: racism and denial.
The plot hinges on the discovery of an album heavy with photos of lynched black people. It is passed from family member to family member with varying degrees of shock and nonchalance. Who does it belong to? The father whose land includes a slave graveyard, whose office is full of hard to explain artefacts? No, it can’t be. Because what exactly does it say about the person who would hold onto such “antiques”?
These questions turn the Lafayettes from white Americans to white America. Emblematic of the kind of moral outrage that falters in the face of money. Of a culture that can’t help but exploit and desecrate black bodies, dead or alive. That is too keen to dismiss the worst aspects of the country’s past and present through the pleas of a “different time”.
If this makes Appropriate sound too nakedly metaphorical and didactic, then don’t worry, it’s not. With dark humour, Jacob-Jenkins wraps this historical discussion in the specific failings and scandals of the family – their grief, their “mismatched memories” – delivering a buffet of juicy monologues and screaming matches for the immensely talented cast to chew through.
While it’s the kind of production that gives everyone a chance to shine, it’s hard to disagree with the argument that it’s Dolan’s performance as Toni that’s the standout. Made mean by justified bitterness, forced to play mother when hers died, she sort of bops and bounces across the stage, uninterested in sparing people’s feelings. She is the play’s complicated, corrosive heart; wilfully blind to her father’s multiple failings, but rightly hurt by the family’s treatment of her as an emotional pack mule.
Director Ola Ince brings this all together with a genuine sense of haunted unease, especially in the play’s closing moments, using Fly Davis’s grubby, sprawling set and the droning cicadas of Donato Wharton’s sound design to hint at the horrors the house has seen.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Appropriate is at Donmar Warehouse from 16th August until 5th October 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.