26 September 2022
BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY (National Theatre, Lyttelton) Review

Written in 1995 by Pearl Cleagie, the play covers a range of topics that should be rather relevant to the issues of today:  homophobia, reproductive healthcare, racism, religious zealotry, poverty, and dreams of a better life.  The story takes place in the 1930s Harlem where Angel and Guy (struggling singer and costume maker, respectively) are living hand-to-mouth next door to a young do-gooder Delia.  Their lives are also influenced by their happy-go-lucky doctor friend Sam and the carpenter Leland who came to New York from Alabama for a change of scenery after a personal tragedy.

Given everything that’s going wrong in the world, I expected the play to feel relevant, but, instead, it felt outdated.  It was a bit like, “oh look, we are having same issues today as they were having in the 30s; sigh”, but there was not spark to it.

The highlight of the night was Giles Terera who was outstanding as Guy.  Not sure how he managed being ever so campy without being cartoonish, but it worked.  Sadly, Samira Wiley was ill, so Angel was played by Wiley’s understudy, Helena Pipe.  She did a fine job of making Angel come to life (and got a standing ovation at the end, which was brilliant to see, and she got quite emotional over it), but there was something about her performance that made me actively dislike Angel.  Thinking about it, I think it was the pouting, the eye-bulging, and the eye-rolling (yes, those are two different things).  For me, the words just didn’t seem to match the facial expressions, which is a shame.

Sule Rimi (who I’d seen in supporting roles in plenty of productions over the years and rather liked) had nowhere to go with his doctor Sam.  From the script, it seems that Sam is meant to go on a bit of a personal journey from being a bit of a party boy to someone who deeply cares about those around him.  Yet, in this production, Sam was being put into these different situations as the play progressed, but that’s not the same as showing the character actually grow.  Osy Ikhile as Leland was intriguing at first, but got more and more “samey” as the play progressed.  As his character unfolds, I wanted to be flabbergasted at the next level to which each of his clashy remark took him, but he may’ve given it so much at the start, that nothing was shocking me about him by his third scene.  Ronke Adekoluejo as Delia was mostly fantastic (and, honestly, although Angel is a much more central character to the play, I enjoyed Delia’s journey far more).  There were a few places, however, where I thought she was overdoing it.  Delia is meant to be young (early 20s I’m guessing) and fairly inexperienced in life, but there were a couple of scenes where she acted more like a teenager, which was a bit much for my liking.

When the play got into its inevitable, if foreseeable, twists toward the end, several groups of people throughout the audience lost it.  There were loud “ooh”s and “aah”s and “oh my gawd”s “nooooooo”s.  Both my companion and I rolled our eyes because, in this day and age, that kind of a reaction is silly given “Chekhov’s gun”:  if there is a loaded rifle on stage in the first act, it must go of in the second; and that is precisely what happens in this play.

There is also something about the play’s ending that’s deeply unsatisfying.  Other than 3 out of 5 characters have the ending of their own making.  Once you saw them head down a certain path, you could see exactly how they would end up feeling about themselves and the others.  For 1 out of 5 the last decision/interaction is so out of character, you have to wonder if Cleagie just had nowhere else to go with it.  I think the play is a wonderfully apt representation of what it was like to be a struggling artist and/or activist (let alone a black artist/activist) in the 30s.  It might even capture the heart, but it doesn’t capture the imagination.

I found Lynette Linton’s direction disappointing.  The pace was dreadfully slow.  At one point Delia asks Sam to be slow, and he says he’ll be as slow as molasses, and that’s exactly how this production felt:  us waddling through molasses.  The neighbours (ensemble cast) were largely superfluous.  Presumably they’re the understudies, and it’s a great decision to give them on-stage visibility in small ways, but they created a lot of dead air somehow.  Also the spontaneous breaking into a song was weird and felt very wrong…  This wasn’t a musical, and the only singer in the play was Angel, so others randomly singing made absolutely no sense.  The dancing with the fan felt like a schtick to connect a few scenes….  I also didn’t like, given how meticulously the divide between the outside and the inside of the building was kept throughout the play, one of the ensemble reached into the flat (through the wall) and removed one of the props.  I understand why it made sense to have it removed, but surely there could’ve been a better way of doing it than breaking the set illusion.

That said, he set from Frankie Bradshaw is worth a separate mention.  Coupled with Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, it set the mood just right for every scene and between scenes.

Normally I wouldn’t even consider seeing this production again (doubly so at almost a 3hr slog), but I really want to see Wiley’s interpretation of Angel, so will probably get around to it in the next few weeks.  I’d seen Wiley in Tartuffe and really liked her, so she was the main draw for me to see this.

As Guy says to Angel, “Alabama is not just a state, it’s a state of mind”, and this production just didn’t jive with mine.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £0 (but may adjusted if/when I see it with Wiley).

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