Leave Taking – Bush Theatre, London

Writer: Winsome Pinnock

Director: Madani Younis

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Leave Taking was first produced in 1987, and yet parts of it are eerily contemporary. In this play about first and second generation immigrants from Jamaica, one character exclaims he is worried that he may be deported as his papers may not be in order despite the fact that he is a British citizen. Coming so soon after this year’s Windrush scandal, sections of this play seem to have been written yesterday and had critics scrambling to discover whether some scenes had been rewritten for this revival at the Bush Theatre. They hadn’t.

The play begins with Enid and her two daughters traveling across London to visit an obeah woman, a kind of medium or fortune-teller, a practice with roots in Africa. Enid thinks her eldest daughter is hiding a secret, which Mai, the obeah woman, will uncover. However, this daughter, Del, has more than one secret; she’s also lost her job at the burger bar. Her waywardness is balanced by her sister’s dutiful behaviour: Viv quotes Shakespeare and Rupert Brooke, and is doing well at school with plans to go to university. However, both daughters distrust obeah as an antiquated ritual from the homeland.

All of the characters in this play seem caught between two places, even Viv and Del who have never even visited Jamaica. Enid still wonders if she did the right thing in following her husband to London. There may be poverty in Jamaica but at least there you were in it together; in England,  you’re forever on you own. Enid is also caught between youth and middle-age, pondering her future now that her children have grown-up. Sarah Niles gives a performance of great power as Enid, perfectly capturing the pride and stubbornness of a woman who thinks her ways are the best. And yet, when she dances with her old friend Brod, in what is probably the best scene in the play, we see traces of the fragile hope she felt in her youth.

Enid is at the centre of this play even if the plot seems to favour Del’s journey into an unexpected career. Seraphina Beh, who was so strong in Parliament Square at The Bush earlier this year, is perfect as Del, capturing the wide-eyed disapproval of teenagers who think they know it all. As Viv, Nicholle Cherrie likewise gives a strong performance as the diligent daughter, perhaps echoing playwright Winsome Pinnock’s own experience growing up in England.

Completing the cast are Adjoa Andoh, who gives the obeah woman, a magisterial quality speaking with the weight of poetry, and Wil Johnson, who plays the only man in the play. At times it seems that Brod is here just to add some comic touches to this moving play, and Johnson’s assured performance often has the audience howling with laughter, but he, too, has his own secrets, which he tries to suppress. There’s no weak link in this ensemble.

Director Madani Younis keeps the action quick, but he also knows when to slow things down, especially in the scene changes, which are pleasingly unhurried. Rosanna Vize’s design is simple, as it needs to be in a play shown in the round, but perhaps the water feature is unnecessary. With so much rain in the weather lately, the audience first thought that the roof of the theatre was leaking and it distracted from the pivotal scene being played.

With the National’s recent productions The Barber Shop Chronicles and Nine Night, and now with Leave Taking at The Bush, it’s heartening to see black British lives represented on the London stage. Let’s hope that with these successes we see more productions that truly represent the diversity of London. Hopefully, Leave Taking is actually a beginning.

Runs until 30 June 2018 | Helen Murray

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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