There's a certain kind of solo play – focused more on characters than on narrative or action, and often centred around a single family – where various examples of the genre threaten to blur together in your mind so that you're not quite sure whether you've seen a particular play or production before. To be honest, that happened to me for several minutes in the King's Head Theatre the other night. It took most of the opening monologue for me to grow certain that I had indeed previously encountered Madeleine Sami's performance of Toa Fraser's No. 2, on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000.
But Fraser's piece should not be written off in such a fog. No. 2 is the house number of the family headquarters of a clan of contemporary Fijian New Zealanders, where the aged matriarch, waking at four o'clock one morning, has a conversation with her dead husband and decides that this will be the day on which to hold a family feast and name her successor. Sami plays Nana Maria, half a dozen grandchildren with names like Erasmus, Tyson and Hibiscus (the generation between is barred from the feast – "they're all useless"), the local priest and a visiting Fijian-British girl. (Fraser himself boasts an upbringing and ancestry which qualifies him for a uniquely surreal label: Essex-Fijian.)
There are elements of wistfulness for the passing of a particular era and style of clan living: a few cleverly discreet allusions are sown to family life in Sicily, and the significant piece of music – dismissed by Nana Maria as "from the Dolmio commercial" – is in fact also from the coda of that underrated family elegy The Godfather Part III. Characters are for the most part delineated with skilled economy in both writing and performance (the annoying infant brat Moses being the most notable exception). The play was written for Sami, and her stage technique at the age of 22 is already remarkable, but it's almost as if there's something too polished about all those character transitions that consist of graceful spins into and out of Nana Maria's throne-like armchair.
My reservations on first viewing remain. The conclusion is not a surprise exactly, but is unexplained and seems rather threadbare; it may be the journey which is of interest rather than the destination, but the destination ought at least to be identifiable. Neither play nor production is defective in any palpable way, and Sami's performance is literally awesome, but something still prevents it from catching fire.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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