US writer Eleanor Burgess’ play The Niceties is a dense, talky two-hander that sets out to explore some meaty questions about race and revolution.
Zoe (Moronke Akinola) is a determined student at an elite university on the East Coast of the US, where Janine (Janie Dee) is a professor. Janine gets a sniff of Zoe’s ambition and encourages her, offering to improve Zoe’s presentational style. What starts out as a casual private class suddenly overheats and becomes an argument about race and reputation. When Janine’s comments spill out into the public domain, both lives are shattered.
Burgess is so engaged in building a complex and at times fascinating argument that the characterisation suffers. Both Zoe and Janine feel dismayingly two-dimensional. Burgess’ writing may be provocative but the dramatic structure of the play is far from revolutionary. We learn little about the women’s existence outside of academia and the dialogue, which feels more like a debate, is decidedly dry. Even when Zoe’s cards are laid on the table, it’s difficult to care deeply for either character.
Dee is best known as a musical theatre performer but she’s a versatile actor and steps gamely into Janine’s shoes. Akinola makes a confident debut, but neither role feels like a comfortable fit for the performers.
Rachel Stone’s stylish but cramped office design and Matthew Iliffe’s stilted direction don’t help, and the actors are left circling each other self-consciously around the stage.