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 The Theatreguide.London Review


A Raisin in the Sun
Lyric Hammersmith Spring 2005

Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama is an acknowledged American classic, a richly-textured portrait of African-American life that transcends its immediate subject to speak of universals. And David Lan's production, first seen at the Young Vic in 2001 and revived as part of its season on the road while its home theatre is being rebuilt, captures all of the play's insights and emotional power.

It is an engrossing, frequently thrilling evening that ranks with the best theatre in London today.

On its surface, the play is the story of a small victory over racial prejudice, as a black family planning to move to a white neighbourhood resist the ever-so-polite attempts of the community to keep them out. But beneath that is an extraordinarily sensitive and generous analysis of the African-American family structure and the ways in which its greatest strengths are also weaknesses.

Hansberry reminds us that in a world in which the standard term of address to him is 'Boy', a black man's sense of self is a fragile thing and his experience defined by a frustration that wavers between despair and rage. And a family characteristically ruled by a matriarch and dominated by women can sometimes unwillingly contribute to the emasculation of the men it so much wants to nourish.

So, for example, when this family's matriarch decides how to spend her late husband's insurance money, she is - without realising it and certainly against all her loving instincts - depriving her grown son of the tools with which to assert his adult authority and fulfil his modest ambitions.

When she does give him the bulk of the money for a business investment that will almost certainly fail, it is because she - and we - understand that the cash is less important than this trust, just as the loss of the money will prove easier to live with than the danger of his surrendering to the despair of impotence.

I don't want to tell too much of the story - there are other relationships and plot lines, and a breath-catching moment of suspense near the end - except to say that it all matters. Hansberry makes it all so clear and real and human that, however powerful it is as a play about race, it is about so much more that anyone can be touched and uplifted by its generous vision.

And all of that is captured in this production, in which David Lan has guided his cast to a loving, sensitive and overwhelmingly real experience of Lansberry's vision.

As the son, Lennie James shows us a man of admirable passions and dreams that are rotting under the restraints in which he lives, so that  violent explosion or internal collapse seem equally possible. And if the actor occasionally goes a bit over the top, it is in the service of a fully realised portrait of a man on the edge of either fulfilment or destruction.

He is not alone. If you've heard of cases where it's hard to separate actor from character, this play offers two wondrous demonstrations of that particular kind of great acting. Novella Nelson as his mother and Noma Dumezweni as his wife know those women so well that they don't just play them, they inhabit them.

You simply can't see the performers acting, but just the characters being, and I cannot offer greater praise than that.

Some of the supporting cast aren't quite as good - to put it simply, you can see the actors acting - and Francis O'Connor's odd stage design makes it look like the family live in an alleyway outside a tenement. But they don't hurt the play.

You will laugh. You will cry. You will experience joy and despair. You will learn. This is a great play and this is a great production.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

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Review - A Raisin in the Sun - Lyric Hammersmith 2005