Writer: Roy Williams
Director: Paulette Randall
How long does it take for an immigrant community and its new home country to adjust fully to each other? This is the key question asked by Roy Williams in The Fellowship, his newest state of the nation play, receiving its world premiere here. Sisters Marcia and Dawn are descended from the Windrush generation and the play, set in present day London, tells how their lives have followed different courses, while the bond between them has remained strong.
Having stepped in at very short notice to take the pivotal role of Dawn, Cherrelle Skeete emerges in triumph, giving a remarkably assured, almost word perfect performance. Dawn and her partner Tony (Trevor Laird) have had two sons, one of which was murdered in a racially motivated attack. Marcia (Suzette Llewellyn) is a successful barrister who has become involved in a relationship with a high-flying politician and is heading for a fall.
Dawn and Tony’s surviving son, Jermaine (Ethan Hazzard), is now involved in a relationship with a white girl, Simone (Rosie Day). Adding to the family’s woes, the sisters’ mother is upstairs dying, it is revealed that Marcia and Tony were once lovers and both Marcia and Dawn have separate brushes with the law, represented by a black officer, PC Spencer (Yasmin Mwanza). Yes, Williams packs in enough plot, some of it trivial, to fill a whole week’s episodes of EastEnders and the soap-style melodrama frequently threatens to submerge the writer’s cutting and burningly relevant social observations.
Inserting references to infamous real life events, Williams examines the roles of heritage, identity and family in modern life. He paints a picture of a community which remains ill at ease with its adopted homeland, still harbouring suspicion and mistrust many decades after planting roots there. Marcia is said to be accepted in the corridors of power only because “they” have allowed her to be there and Dawn violently opposes her son’s romance with Simone, because she is white. Williams sees prejudice between minority and majority communities as operating in both directions, but he also expresses hope that barriers are, very gradually, being broken down.
Libby Watson’s set design seems peculiar to say the least. A curved modern staircase embraces the entire stage and a giant overhead halo (representing a much used smart speaker) is mirrored on the floor. Overall, the set resembles the interior of a chic fashion store more than the intimate family living space that it is meant to be and it adds to the muddle of a play which often feels uncertain of its direction.
Director Paulette Randall’s production is at its best when it gives life to the humour in Williams’ writing and at its worst when it substitutes excessive shouting for genuine emotion. The comedy highlight comes with a long speech by Dawn, effectively apologising for becoming immersed in “white” culture. It is delivered by Skeete with total conviction before she dances joyfully to a track by Kylie Minogue.
Part drama and part comedy, part serious social commentary and part soap opera, The Fellowship is, in close to equal measures, entertaining, enlightening and exasperating.
Runs until 23 July 2022