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Theatre Review Nine nights of funerary fun

MARY CONWAY recommends a joyous and insightful celebration of Jamaican culture

Nine Night
Trafalgar Studios, London

IN THE wake of the ongoing Windrush scandal, a play set deep in the heart of a Jamaican family is just what’s needed and Natasha Gordon's Nine Night, which drew glowing reviews when initially performed at the National Theatre, doesn’t disappoint.

The play’s title refers to an old and deep-seated Jamaican funerary tradition whereby the soul of a dead person is believed to linger in the house until the ninth night, when it departs forever. During this time, family members and mourners gather in an extended wake to celebrate with music, food, stories and even games.

In Nine Night, the deceased is revered mother and grandmother Gloria who came to Britain from Jamaica in her youth, leaving one daughter behind and raising a whole new family in her new-found land.

In her life, and in the varying aspirations of her family, we see the struggle to preserve a Caribbean culture and heritage, itself created through the conflicting influences of west African magic and British colonialism while also assimilating the values and mores of modern English life.

The result — moving, uplifting and full of lovable characters — is a beautifully judged exploration of the complexities of family, but what surprises most, given the sombre subject matter, is the play’s delightfully comic tone and light-heartedness. The famed Jamaican carnival exuberance is never far away.

Natasha Gordon has already received a well-deserved Evening Standard most promising playwright award for this work, which finds instant empathy with its audience and immerses itself in the lives of authentic characters who, while recognisable, always surprise and entertain and never stray into cliche.

Gordon also stars in the show as the delightful Lorraine and hers is the driving force as she invites us into her very particular world of people whose cultural experience rarely finds expression in the world at large.

The cast are a joy, with Cecilia Noble defining for all time the glorious Jamaican matriarch that is Aunt Maggie. Abandoning the solemn proceedings at one point to catch up on East Enders, she beautifully combines an unshakeable autocracy with unexpected pragmatism to great comic effect.

Together with Michelle Greenidge as the abandoned Trudy, she speaks to us in the richest and most wonderfully poetic patois, though conflict is never far away.

Directed by Roy Alexander Weise, this is a thoroughly enjoyable evening which, crucially, celebrates diversity. Heart-warming theatre and it speaks volumes that Gordon is the first living black woman playwright to have a play staged in the West End.  

Runs until February 23, box office: trafalgarentertainment.com.

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