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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Red Velvet
Tricycle Theatre   Autumn 2012, Spring 2014; Garrick Theatre February 2016

A new reign has begun at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, and Indhu Rubasingham’s premiere offering as Artistic Director carries in its programme an address to the theatre’s audiences, promising ‘to continue to be bold, innovative and to take risks’. 

Red Velvet is not an especially risk-taking play, rather one that illustrates risks taken in centuries past. Nor is it, with its predictable present/past/present again structure, an especially innovative one – nonetheless, if Rubasingham’s time as Artistic Director continues in the vein of this excellent production, the next few years at the Tricycle will be unmissable.

The play tells the story of Ira Aldridge, by all accounts a real-life phenomenon. He was an incredibly talented 19th century Shakespearean actor who met with great acclaim in the provinces of the UK and Europe, and even received a state burial when he died in Poland in 1867. 

The play divides its time between Aldridge in Lodz at the end of his life and 1833, when he caused a stir amongst critics by playing Othello on the London stage – because, instead of being a white actor who applied ‘black face’ to play the Moor, as was traditional, Aldridge was actually black.

Red Velvet has received a lot of attention in the press, not only for telling the somewhat neglected story of a remarkable person, but because it is a collaboration between husband-and-wife Lolita Chakrabarti, the writer, and Adrian Lester, the play’s star. 

For a first full-length piece, Chakrabarti’s play is admirable, if a little uninventive at times. The first scene for instance, in which a journalist breaks into an ageing Aldridge’s dressing rooms to interview him, thereby providing the audience with lots of helpful backstory, feels rather pat – but these are forgiveable beginners’ mistakes, and the skill and sensitivity with which she tackles race and society and the entire institution of the theatre more than make up for it.

Meanwhile, Adrian Lester is genuinely quite remarkable in the central role, with a perfectly pitched combination of passion, talent and quiet desperation, and we are even treated to a few glimpses of his Othello – a nice preview for when Lester takes on the role at the National next year. 

Amongst the support, the entire cast are very strong, but Eugene O’Hare stands out as Aldridge’s old friend Pierre Laporte. Pierre gambles on the actor’s brilliance and is castigated for it by the press, and O’Hare gives real understanding to a man desperate for change but angry and frightened to have to be the one to stick his head above the parapet and make it happen.

Rubasingham’s direction is neat and often beautiful and the production is, in its best moments, not only clever and still deeply relevant, but wonderfully moving too.

Lauren Mooney

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Review - Red Velvet - Tricycle Theatre 2012  

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