Nine Night – National Theatre, London

Writer: Natasha Gordon

Director: Roy Alexander Weise

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Every culture has its own funereal rites, its own expectations of mourning. Some focus on sombre, internalised grief, while others are community-based celebrations of life. Natasha Gordon’s new play takes the Jamaican nine night as it basis, exploring how traditional rites are adapted to modern settings, as well as the growing anxieties for one family with a complex relationship to the deceased.

As the play opens, three generations gather anxiously as bedridden matriarch Gloria nears her end, almost exclusively cared for by her youngest daughter Lorraine during a long illness. Soon the traditional nine nights of mourning begin, with feasting and revelry, culminating in a final chance to say goodbye. But over those nine days, patience wears thin and latent tensions emerge among the relatives desperate to give Gloria the send-off she deserves while figuring out what the future holds.

In the wake of the Windrush immigration scandal of the last few weeks, Nine Night couldn’t be better timed, being a play that actively celebrates the survival of different types of heritage and tradition in multicultural societies. Gordon’s writing is alive to the changing experience of Jamaican identity in the UK, as each successive generation has seamlessly woven together the characteristics of their physical and spiritual home to form a new perspective.

Setting this in a fairly traditional family home, Gordon creates a familiar scenario to examine the issues arising from caring for dependents – particularly when the burden of care falls on one person – and the inevitable recriminations that follow. But around this, she tangible creates a sense of the wider translation of Jamaican culture that brings people together with food and music to honour the dead, while tapping into the supernatural and superstitious aspects, making this a production in which the smallest details resonate with the audience.

Gordon has created a set of characters that feel as though they existed before the show began and will continue their lives after we’ve all gone home. The largely absent Trudy who is still in Jamaica, put-upon Lorraine and brother Paul desperate to make money to show the world he is someone to notice, display an interesting and complex sibling rivalry, balanced by an elderly Aunt and Uncle who were part of the Windrush generation, as well as Lorraine’s 20-something daughter Anita whose interactions suggest love and loathing in equal measure.

As Lorraine, Franc Ashman is exhausted, used and desperate to receive some recognition for everything she has given up to care for her mother. Often a quiet presence, Ashman suggests a woman worn down by her experiences but unable to deal with the unanswered questions arising from her grief. As brother Robert, Oliver Alvin-Wilson feels an equal pressure to live up to an idea of masculinity and success he has created for himself, while late arrival Trudy (Michelle Greenidge) is a hand grenade waiting to explode.

Undoubtedly star of the show is Cecilia Noble as Aunt Maggie, disapproving and domineering, embodying the traditions of old Jamaica. Noble has all the best lines and delivers them with beautiful comic timing, managing to be both larger-than-life but entirely credible at the same time. If Gordon ever writes a companion piece to Nine Night then Aunt Maggie is the character everyone wants to see more of.

While it’s a shame that in the flexible Dorfman Nine Night is in a proscenium arch formation, Rajha Shakiry’s kitchenette design suggests a well-loved family home. Running at 1 hour and 50 minutes without an interval, director Roy Alexander Weise keeps the action flowing well with only the occasional sag in energy, making Nine Night an engaging family drama and a wonderful celebration of Jamaican culture in the UK.

Runs until 26 May 2018 | Image: Helen Murray


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