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The Mountaintop review at Young Vic, London – ‘a gripping, heartfelt production’

Gbolahan Obisesan and Ronke Adekoluejo in The Mountaintop at Young Vic, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It’s only been six years since Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop unexpectedly won the 2010 Olivier for best new play, but this revival comes at just the right time. Roy Alexander Weise – winner of this year’s JMK Award – directs a gripping, heartfelt production that cements the two-hander’s reputation and poses resonant questions about modern America.

Martin Luther King (Gbolahan Obisesan) sits and smokes in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the eve of his assassination. A hotel maid (Ronke Adekoluejo) knocks on his door with a cup of coffee and a smile. By turns saucy, by turns serious, their ensuing conversation paints a rich picture of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s. In its impassioned dissection of the ethical and philosophical conflicts involved, Hall’s play may lack articulacy, but in its evocation of an unjust, fractured America, it has few equals.

Obisesan provides a nuanced, three-dimensional hero: feverishly paranoid, blackly humorous and effortlessly charming, this is Martin Luther King behind his hotel door, away from the public gaze. Opposite, Adekoluejo is superb, teasing and tickling him playfully until his responsibilities, doubts and fears come tumbling forth.

The Mountaintop takes a surprising spiritual turn towards its conclusion, when Rajha Shakiry’s sublimely humdrum hotel room set reveals the tricks up its sleeve, setting the stage for an immensely powerful finale: a tear-jerking race through African American history from 1968 to the present day, from James Brown and Bob Marley to Obama and Black Lives Matter. Rarely does theatre achieve such invigorating poignancy.

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Humorous, heartfelt and moving revival of Katori Hall’s 2010 Olivier award-winning play