Royal Court, London SW1
A little something in me dies when I know I am going to see a monologue. Events described are usually much less interesting than events seen. I wait to be bored, and I am rarely let down. Sometimes it can work. With David Hare’s Via Dolorosa, his reportage play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it worked very well. The same is true of Debbie Tucker Green’s 45-minute drama, written for one actress, about a day in a life of a black working-class family in London.
Like Hare’s play, Tucker Green manages to turn the presence of just one figure on stage into a virtue. And, again like Hare’s play, from one performer we get many voices. For Sacha Ware’s production the Court’s main stage has been stripped down to its black brick shell. Standing centre stage, Nadine Marshall takes on all the play’s roles — the four members of the family and a few more besides.
It takes a while to work out what Marshall is doing. The move between characters is subtle and made with a shift of her weight, a change of her stance or a break in the rhythm of the colloquial language, which is sometimes hard to understand.
Central is the character of the surly teenage boy who gives his middle-class school teacher attitude. His older sister, who has contempt for her gossipy office co-workers, serves as the play’s main narrator. Their parents — whose signatures are their West Indian accents — consist of a slumbering father and indomitable mother. Although Marshall segues between the characters seamlessly, sometimes you need to see the seams to know who is doing the talking. And for anyone over 20, there is also the barrier of teenage street-speak to overcome. But once the ear is tuned, Marshall’s is a virtuoso performance. Comic character studies turn into a tale of knife crime.
And there is poetry to be heard. To a bleary-eyed teenager, the morning chorus is nothing but “birds bitching their birdsong”. Tucker Green offers no reason and no solution for the epidemic of street stabbings. But she writes with closely observed detail about a family’s attempt to hang on to pride while getting to grips with grief. There are, though, moments that feel like authenticity has been swapped for sentimentality. Teenagers mark their respect for the deceased with their “MP3 wires dangling, their mobile phones on silent, their schoolbags still slung on their uniformed backs”. But more importantly, we get to know this family, and through them, their community, its prejudices, its fears and its attitudes. Boredom never entered my mind.
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