Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, London SW1
Opened 19 April, 2004

Hans Nägeli's air for "Blest Be The Tie That Binds" punctuates most of the scene breaks in this production of the late Doña Daley's play which takes its name from the hymn. Delroy Murray, though, has cleverly arranged it in a number of genres from chapel organ to Studio One-style golden-age reggae, depending on the mood of the preceding moments. It's an efficient and clever way of (literally) underscoring the play's concerns both with those bonds of family, of home and with the various nuances of cultural identity that the play's three female characters move through.

Florence came to England over 30 years ago with her (now deceased) husband; at first she regularly sent money back to her family in Jamaica, but lost contact after a falling-out with her sister Martha, whom she considered a leech. Instead, she developed a friendship with Eunice, a Chapeltown lass who married a Jamaican.

Into the two's poor but generally content high-rise lives near Clapham Junction bursts Martha, unannounced; now a world-class hairdresser, she tries to persuade Florence back to their homeland, not so much out of love as a sense of her own power and Florence's supposedly proper place. At various points, everyone gets to be jealous of everyone else, to admit to insecurities, to have a voluble bust-up and eventual reconciliation; the climactic such confrontation/rapprochement between the sisters involves a lot of family history.

This makes the play sound a little more formulaic and a lot duller than it is. Daley's concerns emerge naturally through her characters rather than hammering an agenda, and director Paulette Randall (whose Talawa company here co-produces with the Royal Court) gets her cast Marion Bailey, Lorna Gayle and Ellen Thomas to turn in performances which all engage in different ways.

I can't shake the notion that this production would be more at home somewhere like the Tricycle rather than festooned with preconceptions about what constitutes a Royal Court play. That in itself, though, could be precisely the kind of inadvertent racist condescension that such work unfussily rebuts. Blest Be The Tie demonstrates that Daley's death in 2002 was a loss for the kind of drama that examines multicultural Britain from within the cultural mainstream.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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