Cleo Sylvestre, Derek Ezenagu & Laurietta Essien in 'generations' at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
This double bill of short plays about death and grieving provides a evening’s theatre which manages to be enjoyable and admirable in many ways despite its flaws.
The first play generations is, frankly, baffling. Any good play tells a story clearly. This one doesn’t although there’s some powerful, understated acting especially from Laurietta Essien as Mama. A cross-generational, black South African family group are chatting and teasing each other over a meal. They keep repeating versions of same conversation - as families do - and the rhythms are fluidly lyrical. From time to time a character, starting with a child, leaves the Minerva in-the-round stage and the others seem sad. Eventually only the grandparents are left. I had to consult the programme in the interval to learn that the piece is about Aids and its effect on families. Right … well, if I’m not especially daft or dim and if I couldn’t work that out from the play itself then there’s a fundamental flaw. I wonder if audiences at National Theatre in 2005 and The Young Vic in 2007 had the same problem?
By far the best thing about generations is the eight members of the South African Cultural Choir who provide moving laments and vocal accompaniments with stunningly taut rhythms and perfectly judged harmonies. After an atmospheric mini 'performance' to create a South African atmosphere while the audience are finding their seats they surround the stage – like a quasi beckoning celestial choir.
The second play random is a monologue (which originated at The Royal Court in 2008) performed by Petra Letang and it’s much better than the first. We are presented with a black family through the eyes of the daughter whose brother becomes a street murder victim. It’s a stunning and deeply moving performance. From a technical point of view, Letang’s voice work (congratulations voice and dialect coach. Hazel Holder) is outstanding as she switches from her main character’s London street speak, to her mother’s broad Caribbean accent, the teacher’s RP and many more. At an emotional level Letang conveys feelings which slice everyone listening into shreds. This family – a decent, well bonded ordinary lot whose mother likes to keep the sitting room tidy, whose daughter loathes getting up the morning, whose brother doesn’t want his sister in his bedroom and whose father tries to keep the peace – is hit by random horror which the play forces us to confront. The set is minimal. Letang’s intelligent, compelling performace is all.
Photo: Manuel Harlan