for all the women who thought they were Mad – Stoke Newington Town Hall

Writer: Zawe Ashton

Director: Jo McInnes

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

The Hackney Showroom is on the move and is presenting its new play in the swish interior of the Art Deco Stoke Newington Town Hall. Zawe Ashton’s powerful new play charts the life of an African woman coping with the pressures of English life. It makes for a stirring evening.

Joy is just about to get a promotion at work. She’s been putting in the hours for the last ten years, but it seems like all the hard work has finally paid off. Her boss comes to tell her the good news. He’s slightly reptilian, and when he plants his hands on her shoulders the audience expects an assault of sorts. But the story quickly switches and we see Joy in her office talking to Margaret, a cleaner who she has never seen before. However, Margaret has seen Joy plenty of times and even suspects that they are from the same African village.

Through the play’s 85 minutes, Joy meets more people, all reminding her of home, her African home rather than her English home. In Africa there is community and family. ‘How do you raise a baby?’ Joy asks her mother. ‘With a village’ she answers. In England, life is very different. Here, Joy is alone with a career ladder to be climbed.

Surrounding each scene, played out on a platform of neon lights, a chorus of women howl at the wind and howl at the gods. ‘How could a grown woman fall?’ is one of their refrains, and yet it’s not clear for a while who these woman are. Much of what they say is poetic, but opaque.

The acting throughout is excellent with Mina Andala as Joy, who soon obtains the sympathy of the audience, with her weariness and wandering. As her mother, jazz singer Jumoké Fashola brings some comedy to this otherwise tragic story, her voice booming through the hall at Stoke Newington. The voices of the other actors are sometimes drowned out under the constant sound design by Tony Gayle, especially at the start when rain falls (though it doesn’t particularly sound like rain).

As the boss and the doctor, Michael Fitzgerald’s stylised acting and colonial references, makes Joy’s other life seem more real. There is also good work from Janet Kumah as Rose and Jenifer Dixon as Kim, who are overwhelmed by the play’s end. But in essence, this is an ensemble piece, and each actor truly convinces in this story of a black woman’s experience, and her attempts to survive.

Playwright Zawe Ashton, who is currently on Broadway in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, wrote for all the woman who thought they were Mad 11 years ago, and in a something of a theatrical coup, another production is opening in New York at the same time as the play premieres in London. Occasionally a little too poetic, the play works best when it is straightforward and clear. Joy’s monologue about her dream seems too abstract and, sadly, a good deal of it is lost to the soundtrack, and to the other side of the stage.

Hopefully, these sound issues can be ironed out for future performances, but otherwise it’s a solid production that will take you to the edge and back.

Runs until 9 November 2019

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