Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 24 July, 2000

Unusually for the Tricycle Theatre, its playing space has been refashioned, with several rows of seats being moved from the front to the sides of a deeper, narrower stage more akin to that of The Door, the studio space at Birmingham Rep, from which this production of Roy Williams's The Gift comes to London.

It is pretty much guaranteed that any such title is going to be darkly ironic, and this instance is no exception: not quite as grim as the Velvet Underground song of the same title, but bleak enough. After more than thirty years away from the family home in the Jamaican boondocks, Heather returns thoroughly Anglicised, at least on the surface to bury her son. For the past years, after a childhood prank that went all too right, sister Bernice has been trading in Jamaica on her "gift" for speaking to the dead, but it gradually becomes apparent that the conversations Heather's daughter Janet is having with her dead brother are the product of more than just grieving imagination.

Every one of the characters is haunted: sometimes literally, sometimes wishfully as Bernice at once has a desperate need to be believed about her "gift" and a compulsion to drown in drink her guilt about her deceits but most consistently the spectre at each shoulder is that of the unshakable truth of their individual lives, the reality which duns all their respective desires and ambitions. Indeed, the single truly contrived note in the 90-minute piece is the final scene of happily-ever-after, in which the preceding climactic summoning and farewell seem to have paid off for everyone.

Annie Castledine directs with her usual care and insight, and her frequent musical associate Timothy Sutton augments the action with sparse, plangent piano chording. Williams's play is one of those nicely crafted small-scale artefacts (such as Moria Buffini's Silence) at which The Door seems to excel, a play which demands individual excellence whilst at the same time creating a substantial communal character. Claire Benedict, though, stands out as Bernice, a force of nature whose innate puckishness both sustains her through her "gift" and is perverted by it and by others' expectations of it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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