PATRICK MARMION reviews Blues For An Alabama Sky
Blues For An Alabama Sky (Lyttelton, National Theater)
Verdict: Cool character study
Rating – ***
The Boy With Two Hearts (Dorfman, National Theater)
Verdict: Heartfelt but saccharine
Rating – **
Hardship has seldom seemed so easily borne as at the National Theater this week, where a brace of plays make light work of the rigors of discrimination, poverty and displacement.
One is American writer Pearl Cleage’s dreamy Blues For An Alabama Sky, a hymn to the Harlem musical and cultural renaissance during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The other is The Boy With Two Hearts — an oddly saccharine saga of an Afghan family fleeing the Taliban and seeking help for their eldest son’s heart condition in the UK.
The five characters in Alabama Sky (at the Lyttelton) are its finest feature. There’s Angel, a self-destructive showgirl and gangster’s moll, played by Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale, Orange Is The New Black), who lives by the mercies of an adorable, openly gay fashion designer Guy (a neatly flamboyant Giles Terera).
One is American writer Pearl Cleage’s dreamy Blues For An Alabama Sky, a hymn to the Harlem musical and cultural renaissance during the Great Depression of the 1930s
Across the hall, we have a blushing virgin called Delia (Ronke Adekoluejo), who just happens to be a suffragette and birth-control activist. She falls for tall, fun-loving doctor Sam (Sule Rimi), who helps women procure illegal abortions.
The main shadow that falls across their lives is cast by a handsome stranger, Leland (Osy Ikhile), who has moved into town and turns out to be a Biblical fundamentalist with a tragic past. Yes, there are reports of gun crime, evictions and female oppression in this poverty-stricken New York neighbourhood. But the worst of that happens elsewhere and is largely shrugged off by the characters. Bills are paid, dreams are mostly realized and the big tragic event in the edgier second half befalls a character with least dramatic impact. Even during Prohibition, champagne flows freely in Guy’s apartment, which is supposedly in rent arrears.
Lynette Linton’s comfortably sedate, two-and-three-quarter hour production takes its own sweet time. It plays down the languid plot and promotes a cool, happy-go-lucky atmosphere with snatches of songs between scenes on Frankie Bradshaw’s handsome tenement set.
But if the levels of action are genially soporific, there are some engaging turns. Terera is a 24-carat star; and here he channels the louchely optimistic ghost of Tennessee Williams into his fashion designer, who dresses in a provocative ‘continental style’ and dreams of working in Paris.
Wiley’s showgirl Angel swings between self-destruction and a longing for stability, in the form of Ikhil’s seemingly kindly stranger Leland. Meanwhile, Adekoluejo’s girl-next-door Delia glows with innocent warmth and Rimi’s easy-going doctor Sam could hardly be more chill. It feels a lot like wish fulfillment.
The main shadow that falls across their lives is cast by a handsome stranger, Leland (Osy Ikhile), who has moved into town and turns out to be a Biblical fundamentalist with a tragic past
Over in the Dorfman studio, The Boy With Two Hearts takes a similarly rose-tinted view of the world and comes weirdly close to being an advert for the benefits of people trafficking — ‘tough but worth it!’ Adapted by Phil Porter from Hamed and Hessam Amiri’s book about escaping Afghanistan, the Amiris are presented as a lovely family whose lives are turned upside down when the mother is sentenced to death by the Taliban after speaking out for women’s rights.
Their journey through Russia and Ukraine, where they are constantly met by mysteriously pre-paid cars, is complicated by the eldest brother Hussein’s heart condition. This flares up repeatedly on the 18-month trek to the Sangatte camp in Calais, before they almost perish in a lorry getting across the English Channel. Happily they arrive in the UK to the sound of (what else) Woman’s Hour on Radio 4!
Amit Sharma’s cheerfully improvised production, which premiered at the Wales Millennium Center last year, is warm and well meaning. Houda Echouafni and Dana Haqjoo are endlessly forgiving as Mum and Dad, while Shamail Ali, Farshid Rokey and Ahmad Sakhi are devoted sons.
Annoyingly, Porter’s CBeebies-level dialogue is projected overhead throughout. Great for the aurally impaired maybe, but it means we know what the actors will say before they’ve said it. Spoiler alert, guys!
The Amiri family have been through the wars — literally. I wish them well, but as entertainment, it’s way too jolly for me.
Dmitry (Marylebone Theatre, London)
Verdict: Russian epic runs out of steam
As in warfare, so in theatre: be wary of invading Russia. You risk a long campaign and heavy losses (ask Napoleon). So it goes with Tim Supple’s go-getting but ultimately over-ambitious three-hour production of Peter Oswald’s verse drama, Dmitry, about a legendary 16th-century claimant to the Russian throne.
Based on Friedrich Schiller’s unfinished 19th-century play, it’s a bold number to open this new arts venue in the gorgeous Art Deco Rudolf Steiner House, built between the two World Wars. The 212-seater theater is a bit of a lecture hall, but creamy stone and curved features — not to mention comfy seats — ensure it’s a pleasant place to watch even an over-blown drama.
Oswald takes potent inspiration from Schiller as a terrific (if wordy) storyteller. Schiller’s fascination with great men harboring God complexes and speaking in verse has fallen out of fashion. Today, we prefer our heroes to profess humility and speak prose.
Our titular hero discovers he is a Russian prince, saved as a child from Tsar Boris Godunov’s assassins by the palace woodcutter.
So it goes with Tim Supple’s go-getting but ultimately over-ambitious three-hour production of Peter Oswald’s verse drama, Dmitry, about a legendary 16th-century claimant to the Russian throne
Supported by a misalliance of Polish Catholics and dissenting Cossacks, he aims to depose Godunov and assume his rightful inheritance.
It’s an epic saga combining political, religious and ancestral conflict to which Oswald brings extraordinarily fluent poetry.
The trouble is that Supple — best known for his 2006 Indian-inspired Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — directs as if he still had the might of the RSC at his disposal.
Impressive costumes mix jeans, army uniforms and religious cassocks together with sumptuous coronation robes.
Although otherwise relatively spartan, Supple adds the melodramatic ornament of rock guitar, bagpipes, church chant and even pounding heartbeats to underscore proceedings.
Across a company of 16, the acting is necessarily variable. Tom