Nine Night at the Trafalgar Studios: the triumphant return of ‘the best play of 2018’
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night, a brilliant play about grief, family and food.
When Nine Night first opened at the National Theatre earlier this year, reviewers (myself included) praised the vibrancy of its characters and its delicate balancing of humour and pathos. The news of its transfer to the Trafalgar Studios was welcomed by all, but especially by those who felt their culture was being represented truthfully on stage. Having seen the show multiple times, what has consistently impressed me about Natasha Gordon’s debut play was the euphoric, at times almost spiritual, response to the play by the audience. Gordon’s writing is sharp and the actors chosen to bring to life her characters are superb, but it is Nine Night’s consistent ability to evoke the spirit of a community that marks its endurance as the best play of 2018.
Gloria is dying with her daughter Lorraine (Natasha Gordon) and grand-daughter Anita (Rebekah Murrell) caring for her. Occasional, unplanned visits are made by Aunt Maggie (normally played by Cecilia Noble but on my performance by Jade Hackett) and Uncle Vince (Karl Collins), whilst Lorraine’s brother, Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) comes to see his dying more. Robert and Lorraine’s half-sister Trudy (Michelle Greenidge) comes for the funeral. Gloria is never seen during the play and passes within the first twenty minutes, and what follows are the traditional nine nights of mourning as per Jamaican tradition. As I noted in my first review, Gloria’s spirit continues in the details of her everyday life – her sheets still smell of her and Robert unconsciously waits for her daily 1pm phone call – yet upon rewatching it was Sophie’s relationship with Gloria that I found most heart-breaking. A newly-expecting mother, Sophie (Robert’s wife and played by Hattie Ladbury) mourns Gloria’s passing all the more due to the absence of her own mother figure and the hints at a distant and cold childhood that punctuate Sophie’s conversation with other characters. Where Ladbury heightens Sophie’s zaniness, however, her quirky character pales in comparison to the homespun truths thinly veiled by Aunt Maggie.
One celebration of the first production of Nine Night was Cecilia Noble’s Aunt Maggie, for which the actress was nominated for the Evening Standard’s Best Actress award this year. Yet on the night I saw Nine Night Noble was replaced by Jade Hackett after the first scene due to illness. Whilst disappointing, Hackett commendably took on the large role. Under this different actress, Maggie’s brashness was replaced with more acidity that continued to make the audience laugh out loud. Hackett maintained Maggie’s worldly sententiae, such as ‘be careful, not carefree’, with verve. If Hackett does not quite look to be in her seventies as the character should be, she retains the sardonic humour that makes the role so cuttingly hilarious.
Whilst the performances of all the cast are superb, the change in actress actually helped to realise the strength of Gordon’s script. It is almost impossible not to be affected by Lorraine’s wounded protectiveness or Robert’s Pyrrhic attempts to safeguard his family. The slight changes to the show emphasise Anita’s attempts to find belonging and place new focus on the more spiritual aspects of the play, enriching the social and cultural impetus of the work. Replacing Franc Ashman as Lorraine, Gordon jumps every time another character touches her and Murrell once more does a fine job as her daughter.
Director Roy Alexander Weise originally did a superb job in bringing this play to the stage, and once more his work ensures this piece maintains its roots. Equal parts humorous and heart-breaking, the play is full of wonderful lines that encourage the audience to think about their own loved ones, present and not. Nine Night reminds us that we cannot choose our family, but that we must love them all the same, even if our own Aunt Maggie can sometimes make it difficult.
Nine Night is at the Trafalgar Studios until the 23rdFebruary, 2019.
Feature and production photograph: Helen Murray