As Stratford East's artistic director Philip Hedley grows more fiery about theatre funding, his venue stages another production which squarely fits its brief: to speak to the lives of the district's populace without becoming mired in earnest sterility. Trish Cooke's play begins as a series of impressionistic, often musical snapshots of life in the small Dominican village of La Plaine, where young terror Clementine rules her sister Grace, and witchcraft and the spirit world are always at the edge of vision. Gradually a narrative coalesces: the girls' mother leaves for England to join the Lothario who quietly abandoned her; subsequently Grace arrives to be confronted with her English-born sister Bianca, while Clementine is left to grow bitter in Dominica.
The vibrancy and immediacy of the first half is such that, last night, a member of the typically animated Stratford audience felt moved to join in the onstage exchanges in Patwa (the Dominican creole) – and was tartly put down in the same tongue. Others proved unready for the gear-change into Act Two, still laughing through the standard immigrant-drama tropes of grey, cold England, feeling a stranger in two lands and the compulsion always to be running to the other side to reach what, you realise too late, you already had.
The dénouement feels overly shapely – Grace returns for her grandmother's funeral, Bianca sees Dominica for the first time, while in England their mother lies dying of a stroke – but the final tableau is nonetheless deeply moving. The "name" of Cathy Tyson as Bianca will entice some, but this is an ensemble piece with a quartet of confident central performances under Olusola Oyeleye's fluid direction. Many of the play's observations on the immigrant experience have been made before: its pleasure lies in their articulate expression and the open humanity which frames them.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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