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The Theatreguide.London Review

Tricycle Theatre Spring 2006; revived Autumn 2006

Lynn Nottage's play has won all sorts of awards and, even in this misdirected production, has a lot that pleases audiences. So this might be something of a minority report.

I found it alternately unfunny, offensive and hackneyed, and always confused.

A very successful African-American woman, who rules the black yuppie world from her perch as a PR guru, loses everything when her husband disappears with all her money, and has to return to the world of her working class family, public housing and the institutionalised sadism of Social Services, before finding true happiness in reconnection with her roots, motherhood and the love of a good man.

Even in that summary you should be able to spot at least three separate plays going on, a satire, a serious social expose and a sentimental Sunday morning inspirational TV drama.

And, far from finding some stylistic unity to bind them together, director Indhu Rubasingham has exaggerated all three, so that each is separately unconvincing and they clash horribly against each other.

In the opening scenes Jenny Jules has been directed to play the central character (Everyone else in the cast doubles or quadruples roles) as a bug-eyed parody with all the subtlety of Absolutely Fabulous (Her not-particularly-airheaded secretary is bizarrely costumed, just to make sure we make the connection).

Even if you don't find the depiction of a successful black woman as a ballsy variant on Butterfly McQueen offensive, you are likely to spend the first fifteen minutes wondering if this is just incredibly bad acting before you realise it's intentional.

It certainly is difficult to take the character seriously when she is forcibly reminded of the world she left behind, so whatever power there may be in Nottage's picture of life in the housing projects is somewhat dissipated by our uncertainty about whether this is still meant to be comic.

(And it's probably a mistake to show us that the woman's white secretary has also dropped way down the socioeconomic ladder, rather weakening the racial message.)

And then the forcible imposition of a supposedly happy ending in the arms of a former drug addict has all the conviction of a Mills and Boon (Americans: think Harlequin) romance.

Suppose a man wrote a play that said a strong, ambitious, successful black woman should stop being so uppity and go back where she belongs, to the life of a single mother on welfare, where the highest permissible ambition is a civil service job and a man who won't hit her too often.

The obscure rules of political correctness make it all right for a black woman to write this play, and for audiences to laugh through most of it and weep sentimentally at the ending.

And a better production than this might enable them to do that and not leave with a discomfortingly bitter taste in their mouths.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Fabulation - Tricycle Theatre 2006


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