Friday, 7 June 2013

The Amen Corner [shortly coming off crutches] - National Theatre, Wednesday 5th June 2013


The Amen Corner takes place in two settings: a ‘‘corner’’ church in Harlem and the apartment dwelling of Margaret Alexander, the church pastor, and of her son, David, and sister Odessa. After giving a fiery Sunday morning sermon, Margaret is confronted by the unexpected arrival of her long estranged husband, Luke, who collapses from illness shortly thereafter. Their son, David, along with several elders of the congregation, learn from Luke that, while Margaret had led everyone to believe that he had abandoned her with their son years ago, it was in fact Margaret who had left a dysfunctional Luke and pursued a religious life. This information precipitates confrontations between Margaret and her son, her congregation, and her estranged husband, regarding what they perceive as the hypocritical nature of her religious convictions, and the breakup of her family.
After an important conversation with his dying father, David informs Margaret that he is leaving home to pursue his calling as a jazz musician. On his deathbed, Luke declares to Margaret that he has always loved her, and that she should not have left him. Finally, Margaret’s congregation decides to oust her, based on their perception that she unjustly ruined her own family in the name of religion.
David - Eric Kofi Abrefa
Ida Jackson - Naana Agyei-Ampadu
Brother Washington - Delroy Atkinson
Sister Rice - Katrina Beckford
Brother Boxer - Donovan F Blackwood
Sister Boxer - Jacqueline Boatswain
Sister Douglas - Miquel Brown
Odessa - Sharon D Clarke
Margaret - Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Luke - Lucian Msamati
Sister Moore - Cecilia Noble

Creative team:
Director - Rufus Norris
Set Designer - Ian MacNeil
Costume Designer - Joan Wadge
Lighting Designer - Paul Anderson
Music Supervisor and Vocal Arranger - The Rev Bazil Meade

Tickets to preview performance kindly supplied by Jenny Woods at

Praise de Lawd, I am soon going to be off these crutches.  Actually, at a couple of points in this show, the gospel singing was so goddamned wonderful that I could happily have got up from my seat, hurled them into the aisle and shouted "Its a miracle! I can walk!"  But perhaps that might not have gone down too well with the rest of the audience, certainly not with the couple to my right who stank of cheap wine to the high heavens, or the couple to my left who quaffed pints of lager all the way through.  I came out afterwards smelling like I had spent the evening in a brewery (yes, I know wine isn't made in a brewery, but work with me on this one, brothers and sisters, and forgive me the sin of mixing metaphors).  I like gospel singing - its so jolly, even when its mournful (I once lived round the corner from a gospel church, and I used to run a hot bath on Sunday afternoon and open the bathroom window so that I could listen to the singing and soak away my sins. The odd glass of wine and rubber duck would feature sometimes - in the bathroom, that is; I don't remember any songs about wine and rubber ducks.  In fact, I think it was probably only the prospect of some gospel that got me to go to this play, because on paper it sounds downright depressing.  But hey, free tickets and all that. The life of a theatre review blog writer, eh?  Its a tough life but someone has to do it. 

Aaaaaanyways, I didn't realise that this play was going to be funny as well. I'm not entirely sure that its meant to be funny, but sometimes the inflexion of a line or phrase can make something funny when the playwright didn't mean it to be.  Sometimes, however, I think that one of the lead peformances tipped very dangerously towards the line that divides humour and parody, actually crossing that line several times, to the character's detriment.  At least one of the lead performances wasn't very good at all, but there were three stunning performances to compensate for this, and the singing was fecking amazing. And one of the lead performers acted like a dream and sang like a saint, so double bubble.  And the theatre was packed.  Which is nice.

Now, I'm going to be contentious here for a moment.  And some of you are going to raise your eyebrows and some of you are going to say nasty things and I'm telling you here and now, brothers and sisters, that any nasty comment is going to be ignored and deleted so save yourself the bother.  My comment is about black people at the theatre.  Not on stage; in the audience.  Theatre audiences, in my experience, are predominantly white.  In the main, black culture has not (until relatively recently) really embraced theatre; there are historical and cultural reasons for this which are beyond the scope of this blog.  My point is that this is a play by a black writer, featuring a black cast of characters and which deals with black issues and gospel music.  And yet there were so few black faces in the audience.  I counted a dozen, maybe.  Why?  If the remit of the National Theatre is to present theatre for everyone, why can I find no publicity for this production in The Voice?  Why isn't the National reaching out to black audiences and saying "come and see this play"?  Yes, yes, I know - you are going to wonder why I think black audiences would be particularly interested. Well, I think they would be.  And I was slightly bothered that there seemed to be so few black faces in the audience. And that, brothers and sisters, is the end of the contentious paragraph. 

I swear that a lot of the scenery from this show was recycled from the Lenny Henry version of The Comedy of Errors from 2011 - which I saw but cannot see that I reviewed, for some reason.  Possibly because it was so bad I couldn't bring myself to experience it again by writing about it.  Certainly a lot of the architectural backdrop I am sure I have seen before somewhere.  Still, it is nice to see the National re-using stuff. 

The central performance of Pastor Margaret is stunning. Marianne Jean-Baptiste takes on a character which, when you sit back and think about it, is terribly unsympathetic; cold, intolerant, inflexible, unforgiving, unheeding of those nearest to her.  And yet I wager that there was not one person last night who wasn't 100% on her side by the end of the play.  The play is essentially about a power struggle and even I sat there thinking "Oh lordy, is she going to pull this one off?  Or not?"  She is magnificently supported by Sharon D. Clarke, who gives one of the "realest" performances of the evening - understated (not really that difficult when surrounded by caricature, granted) and focussed, and when she sings, I am sure that there are angels above weeping with joy.  Jeez, can this woman give it some. I am still not entirely sure what her character is actually making in the kitchen in the second half - three eggs, a good slosh of milk and what appears to be salt and pepper are whipped up with an egg whisk and then returned to the fridge.  Scrambled eggs perhaps - but would you put them back in the fridge uncooked?   Lucian Msamati is also amazing in the small but pivotal role of Luke.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Eric Kofi Abrefa as David - probably the least convincing performance of the evening.  Cecilia Noble's performance as Sister Moore is going to divide people, I think.  Some will love it, some (like me) will think that her performance tips over the line into caricature just that once too often.  Jaqueline Boatswain hasn't yet managed to cover up her London vowel sounds, which keep popping through her accent; this is annoying.  There was one point where I swear her accent went completely for an entire paragraph.  Naana Agyei-Ampadu does an extremely good job with an extremely small role. 

Chapeau to the London Community Gospel Choir who provide the music.  Amazing. Simply amazing.  And worth the price of the ticket alone (it was free, but you know what I mean).   

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These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.