A moon shining bright

Rosa (Alisha Bailey) dreams of a future with her lover Ephraim (Okezie Morro)

Sweet dreams are hard to come by in the yard: Rosa (Alisha Bailey) dreams of a future with her lover Ephraim (Okezie Morro)

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Birmingham Rep

****

ERROL John has that wonderful ability of a John Steinbeck to write about those at the bottom of the social pile with humour and humanity.

There is no patronising of the poor or any hidden social message to prick our more privileged conscience, just a story about the lives of the have nots, or at least the have very little but hope. The Cannery Row end of Trinidad in the late 1940s and 50s.

He tells their stories and chronicles their lives without using them to make a point which gives the characters both dignity and substance.

Thus we have Esther, daughter of Sophia and Charlie Adams who has won a scholarship to High School.

Esther, played with youthful enthusiasm by Tahirah Sharif, is all excitement. She loves poetry but her dreams of High School and a good education look like being shattered because the scholarship only covers her schooling and books and her parents cannot afford all the rest.

They live in a yard, a collection of shacks, and mother Sophia is the matriarch of the little shanty town with a tongue that could slice steel.

This is a wonderful performance from Trinidad born RSC actress Martina Laird, like Sharif, reprising her National Theatre role. She is perhaps best known as Comfort Jones in Casualty but this shows she is a stage actress of some considerable stature.

Sophia, who has a new baby to care for to add to family pressure,  is battling to raise the money to send Esther to High School but knows she is really just battling to keep her family’s body and soul together.

She befriends the orphan resident Rosa, beautifully played by Alisha Bailey, who has no one in the world except Sophia.

The stunningly attractive Rosa works in the local café owned by Old Mack and spends her life fighting off his ever hopeful attentions. Old Mack, played with obsequious charm by Burt Caesar, also owns the yard and, white suited and decked in fashionable Panama is the local wealth.

His gifts to Rosa, dresses, shoes, gold ear rings and so on embolden his ardour, and as Sophia tells her iSophia (Martina Liard) who treats orphan Rosa (Alisha Bailey) as her own daughterf she accepts and wears his gifts then “he is right to seek his rights”. It is an admonishment and a warning.

Rosa’s affections though are for another resident, her first and only lover, Ephraim, played by Okezie Morro, again form the National production. Morro gives us a brooding, troubled and angry Ephraim, a trolley car driver who is about to be offered a big step up in like as an inspector.

But he wants more, he sees the poverty around him, and at one point tells of his treatment of his grandmother in his past which shows the corrosive power of his ambition.

Sophia (Martina Liard) who treats orphan Rosa (Alisha Bailey) as her own daughter

Rosa has a secret she needs to tell him but Ephraim seems unable to feel anything but ambition and does not want anything to prevent him from his dream of leaving Trinidad for Liverpool.

He sees Charlie Adams, a broken drunk of a man, and is frightened that is his future if he stays in Trinidad.

Charlie, a role reprised by Jude Akuwudike in a fine performance, is a man with a future that never happened. One of the best fast bowlers in the West Indies he challenged authority in an almost gentleman and players scenario to be seen later in England. That was in 1927. He should have been picked for the 1928 tour of England but his career was effectively over. He was never again picked for even the inter-colonies team.

Now he ekes out a living oiling and maintaining cricket bats, drinking and dreaming.

And then there is the fallen women, Mavis, a lady of the night with a penchant, or perhaps more a price list for American salors and GIs. Welsh actress Bethan Mary-James gives us a blousy, noisy, aggressive Mavis and her delight when boyfriend Prince proposes to her is palpable as she pushes her now ring laden finger under every nose in sight.

Prince is a likeable idiot who proposes to Mavis in an effort to stop her working her way through the US armed forces – and to make up for laying her out with a punch aimed at a GI customer. Ray Emmet Brown, another from the National production, gives us a lovely performance as the lovesick boyfriend.

Mavis perhaps has the strongest Trinadadian accent of the cast and perhaps a little toning down might help those less attuned to pick up more of the words.

Her acting was certainly good enough to know exactly what she was saying in every scene, but it would have been nice to make out more of the words.

With other actors some words were lost amid the accents – not helped by the fact the Rep does not have the best acoustics – but hardly detracted from a fine overall production.

Director Michael Buffong, artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company, has managed to give both an impression of an easy paced life in the heat of a sun drenched Caribbean island, yet still make sure the production never dawdles along the way.

He is helped by Soutra Gilmour’s simple but effective set giving us all four homes without the stage appearing cluttered and by a wonderful script that tells a simple story well crating characters we actually care about.

Buffong wants to put Talawa, now in its 27th year on the map, the name means  small and feisty in Jamaican patois. It is regarded as the leading black theatre company in London but little known outside.

With productions like this one, in association with the National Theatre, word of the feisty little company deserves to spread rapidly. Quality theatre will always make its mark on any map. To 22-02-14

Roger Clarke

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl opens in Malvern for a week long run from 25-02-14.

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