Writer: Sian Davila
Director: Michael Buffong
Marking the 35th anniversary of the Talawa Theatre Company with a series of plays for BBC Radio 4, Running with Lions explores the impact of grief, both visible and unseen.
The play begins, indistinctly, in a medical setting. From the first lines of dialogue, we realise this is not a general hospital. Gloria (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is being discharged from a mental health clinic by her father, Maxwell (Don Warrington). Her father talks to his daughter in hushed tones. ‘Mental health’ (we never find out the exact reason Gloria has been admitted) is whispered by Maxwell, like a secret.
From a British-Caribbean background, the family’s attitude to mental health is complicated. Not only do they want to cover up the reason for Gloria’s absence, Gloria also finds out her ‘homecoming’ will be celebrated with a party. As a preacher at the local church, Maxwell warns Gloria that “the gospel can hear you”. Running with Lions’ writer, Sian Davila, skilfully weaves together the complex threads that make up this family’s life. While they deal with Gloria’s return home from hospital, and her re-integration with the family including her own daughter, Imani (played by Lydia West), there is a deeper history at work. As soon as Gloria mentions another member of the family, Joshua (Alfred Enoch), we quickly piece together that Joshua – Gloria’s brother – has died. It is clear that the reality of grief is pressing on all of them.
The play is very much interested in the articulation (and suppression) of memory and experience. Gloria (a great performance from Duncan-Brewster) struggles to find her place in the family after being discharged. Her relationship with daughter Imani is fragile and tentative; Imani voices her fears of abandonment. As the older generation, Maxwell and his wife, Shirley (Sharon D Clarke) are more reticent. Attempts by Gloria and Imani to discuss Joshua are quickly shunted away. Maxwell preaches to his congregation about joy and forgiveness: the sense of doubt is palpable.
Running with Lions is a work of real delicacy, probing the weight that words can carry. Sian Davila examines the issues that prevent this family from speaking freely. Played with sensitivity by Don Warrington and Sharon D Clarke, the importance to Maxwell and Shirley of keeping up appearances – to their family, the society around them and even to themselves – is not only a generational trait, but embedded in their culture.
The play is careful not to oversimplify the lines drawn by politics, culture and race. Not every issue can be neatly resolved, especially where it intersects with subjects such as grief and mental health. Running with Lions, is able to tackle such topics, because it does not seek to smooth over the rough edges, but to acknowledge them. Technically, a work of sophistication, but with empathy at its core – Running with Lions does not presume to have all the answers. Instead it prefers to keep the dialogue going; continuing to ask questions.
Broadcast at 2.15pm on 7 May 2021 and then available on BBC Sounds