The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Summer-Autumn 2019
Like most American plays,
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's new drama is about family. And like most American
family plays, it is really about America.
Jacobs-Jenkins's gripping and
evocative drama takes an honourable place in the American repertoire of
exploring large issues through domestic stories.
An old man has died and his
adult children gather to sell off his house and its furnishings, not with
any real expectation of profit, but just to pay off mortgages and debts
and walk away free and clear.
But of course the
impossibility of walking away free and clear is what the play is about.
The past remains, as a shadow over the present and in the present itself,
as the current generation realise how much they were shaped by their
father, the house, and each other.
That the house is a pre-Civil
War plantation brings in all the weight of America's racial history. And
as his children and grandchildren rummage through the dead man's things
they find evidence that he (who must have been a child of the 1950s or
1960s) was not free of inherited and ingrained prejudices, and that
therefore neither are they.
But the play is not only
about race. Ordinary family squabbles – daddy always liked you best, where
were you when I was taking care of him, and the like – keep going deeper
to expose as much about the accuser as the accused.
The two brothers and the
sister each have something in their past to be ashamed of, and both the
crimes and the shames are dissected mercilessly.
If there is some slim hope
offered in a third generation seemingly less infected by the past then
their parents, it may also be that they just haven't had time for signs of
the infection to appear.
It is a strong play, with
strong acting roles, which director Ola Ince guides her actors to make the
At the fore is the older sister, who did all the work of caring for father and all the work of preparing for the sale, and resents it. Monica Dolan courageously allows the woman to function as the witchy, bitchy villain of the piece for much of the play, withholding any opportunities for us to sympathise until it is time for us to realise that she, like her brothers, was shaped and emotionally crippled by their past.
Steven Mackintosh is the
outwardly more successful and functional brother who has gotten that far
by running away from the past and who, we learn, is not all that
successful after all.
Edward Hogg is the black
sheep, with real sins and failures to account for, but at least the
attempt to apologise and change.
The play is not perfect. It
is overlong and repetitive, it wears its flourishes of symbolism a bit
awkwardly, and a couple of the actors have to struggle with the weight of
invisible signs reading Hope For The Future in their attempt to create
But there isn't a major play
in the American repertoire that couldn't be accused of some of those
lapses, and ultimately they don't matter, Appropriate's strengths carrying
it past them.
Speaking of major plays in
the American repertoire, you may have spotted echoes here of everything
from O'Neill's Long Day's Journey, through Williams's Cat On A Hot Tin
Roof and Miller's The Price, to Shepard's Buried Child.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is not quite as great a writer (yet). But he has the good taste and good sense to be influenced by the best of the best, and it is not inappropriate to speak of Appropriate in their company.
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