Soul – Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton

Writer: Roy Williams

Director: James Dacre

Reviewer: George Attwell Gerhards

Soul, the new play from Bafta award-winning playwright Roy Williams, is subtitled “the untold story of Marvin Gaye” – largely eschewing his music in pursuit of a fierce and tragic family drama. Now, it is up for contention to what extent the peculiar circumstances surrounding Gaye’s death remain ‘untold’ however it is certainly the case that Williams goes deep, offering up a comprehensive psychological study of a family as it tears itself apart. The result is a profoundly moving if occasionally plodding drama that packs an awesome punch at the close.

Williams and director James Dacre set about framing the play by using two distinct methods. They begin by having Marvin’s sisters Jeanne and Zeola (Petra Letang and Mimi Ndiweni respectively) deliver a eulogy for Marvin at his funeral, piecing together his life bit by bit, correcting each other and bickering over details – at times it feels like we’re watching some sort of retrospective exhibition piece. Props and set are minimal and the action leaps from year to year throughout Gaye’s early life in Washington D.C. Things really get going once this stylistic and aesthetic approach is ditched in the second half, which all takes place in ‘The Big House’ that Gaye bought in California (lavishly designed by Jon Bausor). The action is much more naturalistic with the asides of Jeanne and Zeola to the audience cut – frustratingly, however, these are brought back later in the play which messes up its structure and logic. The effect, though, is like having a series of dominoes slowly and methodically lined up next to each other and then watching the fallout as one is knocked over.

As Marvin, Nathan Ives-Moiba excels, capturing the anger and the doomed genius of the tortured musician without overstepping the mark into mawkish cliché. Leo Wringer, as his father Marvin Gaye Snr., also gives a fantastic performance, even if his dialogue is occasionally unforgiving in its bluntness. He manages to capture a man who is simultaneously ridiculous, petty and terrifying. Together, the pair of them never quite to get the friction right and their rows verge on the histrionic but that apart – aided by nice performances from the rest of the company – they flourish.

Bausor’s set is gorgeous, packing everything into a tidy 70s wood-lined gospel church with an accompanying choir (members of the theatre’s excellent community choir). The stage is also framed with large angled mirrors which give the audience a bird’s eye view of the stage reminiscent of Welles’ Citizen Kane. At times, it looks simply stunning.

This new play, a collaboration with the Hackney Empire, is far from perfect. However, it has at its centre a beautifully touching and tragic story that is best evoked by the play’s final image – documentary footage of the two Marvin’s sat chatting on the porch. Williams has captured a dark reality for many families but ends on a hopeful note. Ultimately, this is required viewing for fathers and sons.

Runs until 11 June 2016 | Image:Robert Day

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