Nine Night review at National Theatre, London – ‘comedy and heartache’
In Caribbean culture when a loved one passes, there follows a period of nine nights of official mourning. During this time, friends and family travel to the home of the deceased to offer emotional and material support. The final night, Nine Night, is the most important – it’s when the the spirit of the deceased is given a final farewell, and encouraged to leave the house.
It is from this tradition that Natasha Gordon’s debut play is so named. It tells the story of the three generations of Gloria’s family that are left behind when she dies. The eldest of her grown up children, Trudy (Michelle Greenidge), was abandoned in Jamaica as a young child when her mother travelled to the UK with the Windrush generation.
Trudy waited for her mother to return, but she never did; instead, she settled down and had more children: Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and Lorraine (Franc Ashman). It’s a source of great tension – each sibling harbours a bitterness about the other’s perceived elevated position in their mother’s affections. When Trudy makes a surprise visit to the UK to attend Gloria’s funeral, the bitterness boils over.
The set – designed by Rajha Shakiry – is straight out of the 1970s. The wallpaper is bold and bright, and there is stuff everywhere: inexplicable things made from crochet, plastic plants in every corner, religious relics featuring Jesus and the Virgin Mary adorn the walls. And there are family photos, so many family photos. The level of attention to detail in the design is incredible – right down to the carton of Lactofree milk in the fridge. If you’re close enough to the stage, you might even catch a whiff of the traditional Jamaican soup that simmers away in the dutch pot on the kitchen stove. Most children of immigrants will know a house like this.
Director Roy Alexander Weise directs with a skill that belies the fact that this is his National Theatre debut. The cast delivers perfect undulations of comedy and heartache. Cecilia Noble’s Aunty Maggie provides the belly laughs, while Alvin-Wilson’s Robert has a curious complexity. The steadfast spirit of Ashman’s Lorraine provides calm among the chaos, while – in the most arresting performance of the evening – Greenidge’s Trudy brings more chaos.
The beauty of Nine Night is in the ordinariness of it. The mainstream delivery of black stories is often – too often – overtly political. Brutalised bodies and violent racism is disturbingly normalised in black British theatre. But what we have here is a pure tale about a regular family, dealing with a regular fact of life. This play is a gift, and you’d do well to go and receive it.