The Homecoming / Angel House
Various venues
January / February, 2008

In his Almeida production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, Michael Attenborough has cast Jenny Jules in the role of Ruth, the newcomer into a claustrophobic family circle by virtue of her marriage to Teddy, one of three sons of the tyrannical Max.  Jules is black.


A majority of reviews take note of this decision, but few do much more.  It’s also interesting to see how these various approaches break down numerically.  At least seven of the nine male reviewers write about it (John Peter may be making an oblique allusion when he refers to Ruth as “Queen of the Night”, maybe not); four of the six female critics don’t, and a fifth (Georgina Brown) merely mentions it and no more.  Many of those who do acknowledge Jules’ race seem a little nervous about doing so and “balance” it with a flattering description of Jules herself: she, as distinct from her performance, is variously lauded as “coolly stylish”, “handsome”, “beautiful” and “elegant”.  All of which is true, but not necessarily relevant: the character of Ruth may be called upon to exhibit such characteristics, but ascribing them to the performer herself seems to go a step further.

…Unlike most of the meditations upon the casting decision.  A handful of reviews say that it adds an extra dimension to the family’s reception of Ruth (more than one piece uses the word “twist” about this addition), but virtually no-one addresses it at any length.  The honourable exceptions are John Nathan and Aleks Sierz, who themselves seem to come to opposite conclusions: John appears to suggest that Ruth’s colour would be more of an issue in the milieu of the play, whilst Aleks finds that it informs the invective already launched at her by Max and his offspring, which includes “stinking pox-ridden slut”, “filthy whore” and “a slut-bitch of a wife”.


Most curious of all, Mark Shenton makes no mention whatever of the matter in his Sunday Express review, but three days after it appeared he published 900 words on the topic in a blog on the Guardian’s site.  His argument there grows a little vague, but he seems ultimately to describe the casting as “experiment and playfulness” rather than having any conscious resonance within the world of the play.  But it seems to me implausible that such perspectives as those of Max, Lenny and Joey would lead to sustained abuse of a misogynist nature but not a hint of racism; I therefore agree with Aleks Sierz in inferring that at least part of their vitriol in this production is implicitly about Ruth’s colour.  And I think it’s a testament to Attenborough’s conception and the cast’s performances that they manage to accommodate that reading without making it at all obtrusive.


Race is indubitably present as an element in Roy Williams’ Angel House, but it can be hard to tell where the character-based drama ends and the thematic fibre (about the racial dimension in public housing policy) begins.  Nor does it help that Williams has written at least six or seven discrete strands of plot among the ten characters and three generations who live or have lived in the titular block of flats.  He is not simply saying that drugs, violence and domestic fragmentation would not exist if there were a greater supply of decent, affordable social housing, but he is acknowledging that black Britons in particular have had half a century of raw deals in this respect, going back to the days of “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.  But as our attention ping-pongs from the sibling rivalry of a pair of brothers to their two absent fathers to one’s imminent attack by his drug suppliers to his son’s coming out to… and so on, we end up with a portmanteau play, a notoriously difficult approach to bring off in any medium, even before Williams spends virtually the entire second act having raw truths and reconciliations traded between characters in almost every available permutation. Yet as more than one review acknowledges, Williams is not only a fine playwright but a prolific one; he moves too fast for his mistakes to quite catch up with him.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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