This beautiful play set in post-war Trinidad won Errol John the newly-inaugurated Observer award for an undiscovered playwright in 1957. It was produced the following year and has been revived since, notably at Stratford East in 1986, when the author directed, and by the Almeida in 1988. Now, under Michael Buffong’s direction, and with an exemplary cast, the National Theatre does it proud.
Martina Laird (Sophia Adams) and Jude Akuwudike (Charlie Adams) in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl Nationalâ€™s Cottesloe Theatre, London (previous picture shows Tahirah Sharif as Esther) Photo: Jonathan Keenan
The lyrical title ironically suggests the dreams and aspirations of a group of people imprisoned by poverty, sharing the limited space around a yard with its peeling paint and single standpipe. Soutra Gilmour’s traverse design allows, like the direction, for colour and vigour without sentimentality.
The characters, desperate for escape, are both attractive and flawed. Danny Sapani’s intelligent, frustrated Ephraim can draw tears of sympathy while describing his shame at abandoning his dying grandmother - even as he plans another desertion. Sophia (excellent Martina Laird), strict with her child, tongue-lashing her drunken husband, heroically keeps things together, combining sharpness with heartbreaking devotion. Her daughter Esther, played as a credible 12-year-old by Tahirah Sharif, has to grow up quickly. Like everything else in these straitened lives, love is hard to hold on to.
Jenny Jules as the exotic Mavis and her preening lover Prince (Ray Emmet Brown) provide raucous comedy. As island troops return, visiting GIs take advantage of dollar-hungry locals. Mavis delivers, but she has a wedding ring in her sights. Rosa (Jade Anouka), a convent-educated innocent, has tragically mistaken her path to happiness, while dirty-old-man landlord Mack (Burt Caesar) exercises the power that money provides.
Altogether, this is an expertly orchestrated mixture of sadness and riotous fun.