This is a tough one to cover. American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new drama Fairview arrives in London weighed down with transatlantic accolades, including the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its UK premiere at the Young Vic – which has already extended its run until mid-January – has provoked admiration and anger alike.
What makes it so tricky to write about is what makes it so tricky to review – the fact that the critics largely comply with the producers request for them to steer clear of revealing the play’s multiple twists and turns, and the fact that it is a play about African-American culture, as seen from a privileged, white viewpoint. Needless to say, every mainstream critic attending press night was white.
What we do know is that it is directed by Nadia Latif, designed by Tom Scutt, and stars Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Donna Banya, Nicola Hughes and Rhashan Stone as a well-off African-American family preparing for a birthday party. And that it also features David Dawson, Julie Dray, Matthew Needham and Esther Smith as four white interlopers – somehow.
So, do the reviewers rate Sibblies Drury’s play as highly as their American alternatives did? Will they give Fairview a fair review? Will anyone reading this be able to make head or tail of what actually happens in the play?
Fergus Morgan attempts to round up some interesting reviews.
Act one of Fairview is something of a sitcom, in which an African-American family haphazardly readies itself for a family reunion. Acts two and three, though, do something totally, totally different. And some critics find whatever they do thoroughly thrilling.
“All you need to know is that it’s an experiment in form that has purpose beyond its own cleverness, though it is dazzlingly clever,” writes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★★), calling it “a play of shattering ingenuity and ambition” that is “simultaneously a microcosmic, tightly controlled look at a family through the prism of a middle-class sitcom, and a history of racism and racial politics in all its disglory”.
“It’s no spoiler to say that this boundary-pushing play about racial power structures and storytelling feels like a seminal work that will be discussed for many years to come,” says Jessie Thompson (Evening Standard, ★★★★★), and Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) agrees, confessing that she “can’t think of an evening in the theatre that has made me think more”.
“What the audience finds itself watching is a critique of our attitudes towards race and the foundations of assumption and prejudice on which they are built,” she continues. “The entire play asks you to question the cultural assumptions that you make when you watch a drama about people of another race or colour.”
It is a “sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes deeply uncomfortable, sometimes desperately impassioned an earnest plea for white American culture to leave black American culture alone,” concludes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “I guarantee you’ve not seen anything like it.”
But that structural shift that stunned some critics – whatever it is – also rubs some up the wrong way. And there are also those that, although they admire the theatrical inventiveness of Sibblies Drury’s drama, are irritated by some of its assertions.
For Clive Davis (Times, ★★), it just doesn’t do anything new. “As we wait for the play to reveal hidden depths, all it really gives us is a familiar narrative about the “white gaze”, he writes. “Well-meaning white audiences may well go home with a faintly masochistic glow in their hearts, but is that really enough?”
Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★) calls the play “frustrating and challenging by turns”, confessing that its volte-faces “started trying my patience”. Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★), meanwhile, although consistently complimentary of the play, dislikes its controversial conclusion, calling it “a hollow, virtue-signalling gimmick”.
Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) was left “moved and riled”, particularly by “the presumption of directly comparable historical experience between the US and the UK”. “If you’re white you’re likely to feel guilty,” he reckons. “But you may wind up furious.”
Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) has different reservations, though. “While I loved its intellectual cleverness and theatrical daring, I found myself wanting to argue with it,” he writes. Citing Hamilton, current hit musical Soft Power, and a recent revival of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, he argues that Fairview “takes little account of shifts in contemporary culture”.
None of which makes anyone any the wiser as to what actually happens in the second and third parts of the play. What the critics can discuss, though, is Tom Scutt’s design, and Latif’s direction.
That last is “sure-footed” according to Davis, “assured” and “playful” according to Thompson, and “roaringly funny” according to Allfree. Bano, meanwhile, praises “a stunning production that doesn’t flinch for a second.”
“Latif marshalls a for the most part hugely entertaining, technically dextrous spectacle, expertly steered from sedate sitcom pastiche to all-out chaos,” writes Lukowski. “There’s great work too from designer Tom Scutt: he’s created a lovely chintzy, middle-class home set… and done some other stuff too, that I can’t talk about.”
There is remarkably little comment on the cast – perhaps because to do so in detail would reveal too much. The play is “buoyantly performed” according to Billington and “expertly acted” according to Allfree, but that’s about it.
Donna Banya is the only one individually singled out, for something that happens at the drama’s denouement. Who knows what it is, but Bano says that she “really shines” and Thompson writes that whatever she does, it requires “extreme bravery as a performer”.
Who knows? The critics comply with the producers’ request to keep shtum about the play’s plot, so it seems like if you really want to know what happens, you’ll have to get yourself a ticket – something that’s already proving tricky, such is the furore that Fairview has sparked.
Some critics are entirely awestruck, heralding Sibblies Drury’s play as a powerful examination of prejudice, a daring drama, and one of the most significant shows of the decade. Others, though, are less sure – they respect the play’s argument but take issue either with its delivery, its extension from the US to the UK, or its failure to acknowledge contemporary cultural phenomena.
Ratings range from five stars in The Stage and the Evening Standard to two in The Times. Everyone has a view on Fairview.