Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 8 March, 2007

Some plays do not travel well. It may have nothing to do with their being too specific in subject or spirit; just some spark somewhere that fails to ignite. For much of Naomi Wallace's play, I was inwardly wrestling this point. The story concerns Tice, an unemployed autodidactic black labourer and leading light in the Communist Party of Alabama (it is 1932), and his widowed daughter who takes in laundry to earn a crust for the pair of them. When a white man begs for refuge after, he claims, having murdered a foreman at the hated Tennessee Coal & Iron, it is uncertain whether or not he is a snitch for the company. It is, though, perfectly clear that, whatever else happens, Tice will preach to him from at least one of his two books (the Bible and The Communist Manifesto), and daughter Cali's forswearance of male companionship will be sorely tested.

Southern Black Communism is a neglected part of American history, and utterly unfamiliar to almost all Britons. Does it matter, then, that Britain's labour, racial and workers' self-improvement histories are radically different from those of the American South? Of course not, any more than it does when watching Chekhov that most of us do not inhabit dilapidated country estates and dream of going to Moscow. In the end the problem with Things Of Dry Hours is simply that there is too much of it. It is not just a question of its two and a half hour duration, during which things move slowly if at all. Wallace's writing is dense and poetic and she becomes here almost a Dixie Howard Barker: virtually every line is about Something Big, and usually couched in symbolism rather than outright statement. (Tice, when preaching, shows a near-monomania with the imagery of apples.) Or was the preview performance I attended below par? I think not: director Raz Shaw attends well to visual and verbal atmosphere alike, and at least two of the three performances – Colin McFarlane as Tice and Lorna Brown as Cali – are excellent. Wallace simply neglects the emotional side of the play, or rather keeps allowing herself to smother it with the intellectual aspect, which becomes relentless.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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