The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Summer 2013
African-American novelist James Baldwin's 1954 drama gets a spirited and frequently moving revival at the National Theatre, one that may not fully disguise the play's weaknesses but that captures and conveys all its strengths.
Baldwin's story is somewhat formulaic and predictable, but The Amen Corner – and Rufus Norris's production – draws its power from immersing us in a particular reality.
The female pastor of a small Harlem church preaches purity, total commitment to God and separation from the world's wickedness, but when her estranged musician husband comes home to die and her musician son goes off to discover life, some in the congregation smell weakness and prove themselves far from pure in their back-biting and dark ambitions.
The key to this play is in recognising a world in which church is not a Sunday event but an all-pervading part of life, in which religious language is as natural as 'hello' and 'goodbye', and in which what might be minor dilemmas to some can be soul-lacerating if they challenge faith in any way.
Baldwin's heroine isn't just inconvenienced by her husband's reappearance – her love for him is a direct challenge to her love for God. And she doesn't have just any mother's worry for a son looking to flee the nest, but deeply and painfully fears for his soul.
The National production draws us fully into this world from the moment we see Ian MacNeil's multi-level set, which places the church directly above the pastor's apartment, literally casting its shadow on everything that happens there.
Director Rufus Norris has recruited members of the London Community Gospel Choir to make up the congregation, and every scene of the play is either underscored or punctuated by spirited gospel singing, not only flooding everything that happens in the world of faith but generating immense and highly entertaining theatrical energy.
As the pastor Marianne Jean-Baptiste is all fiery self-confidence in the early scenes but really comes into her own later as we see how torturous the conflict between her personal life and her faith becomes.
If Sharon D. Clarke as her ever-supportive sister, Lucian Msamati as the husband and Eric Kofi Abrefa as the son are not particularly stretched by their underwritten roles, they fill them admirably.
The showiest roles, apart from the central one, belong to the two cattiest and most hypocritical of the parishioners, and Jacqueline Boatswain and particularly Cecilia Noble inject some welcome nasty black humour into the proceedings.