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Soul review at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton – ‘informative and wise’

Nathan Ives Moiba in Soul, at the Royal Theatre, Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Robert Day Nathan Ives-Moiba in Soul, at the Royal Theatre, Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Robert Day
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Soul legend Marvin Gaye has had the bad luck to be remembered as much for the manner of his death as for his greatest hits. On April Fool’s Day 1984, just before his 45th birthday, he was shot dead by his father in their shared Los Angeles family home. Since then, this event has been shrouded in mystery, and playwright Roy Williams’ achievement is to make it psychologically credible.

Marvin was an extraordinarily successful singer-songwriter, whose 1960s Motown hits such as How Sweet It Is and I Heard It Through the Grapevine were followed by other classics such as What’s Going On and Sexual Healing. This play, however, focuses on two episodes of his family life: his early years in the 1950s and 1960s, and, after the interval, the days leading up to his death.

With Marvin’s sisters, Jeanne and Zeola, acting as narrators, the pace of the storytelling is rapid, but there is plenty of time for Keenan Munn-Francis to make his mark as the young Marvin, singing sweetly in the church where his father (forcefully played by Leo Wringer) was the minister. But while their relationship is competitive and fraught, Marvin finds comfort in the love of his mother (Adjoa Andoh).

James Dacre’s effective split-level production takes off in the second half, when the conflicts between Marvin, now a deeply troubled and drug-taking star, and his father become increasingly intense. Nathan Ives-Moiba brings out the older Marvin’s desperation as well as his arrogance and unpredictability, while Petra Letang and Mimi Ndiweni play the contrasting sisters in a drama which feels emotionally truthful and full of wisdom.

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New play about soul legend Marvin Gaye focuses on his family, and is dynamic, informative and wise