Sep 22 2021 | By More

★★★★★  Outstanding

Sound Stage (Lyceum/Pitlochry Festival Theatre online): Fri 27 – Sun 29 Aug2021
Review by Hugh Simpson

History by Roy Williams is not only the best so far of the offerings on the Lyceum and Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Sound Stage audio platform, it must also have a claim to be the most essential of all the audio dramas provided by theatres in the last 18 months.

Starting with Black teenager Neil in the 1980s, who is caught up in violence, brutalised by the police and wrongly imprisoned, the play opens out into a kaleidoscopic portrait of the last forty years.

Interlinked characters such as Jordan (Neil’s son), Gary – the man who brings Jordan up and whose desire to be more British than the British leads him to the Young Conservatives – and Gary’s angrily wayward sister Gwen, lead to an ever-shifting, compelling picture.

Sharon D. Clarke, Cyril Nri, Saskia Ashdown and Ekow Quartey
Olivier Huband, Amaka Okafor and Oliver Alvin-Wilson

Audio drama can occasionally lead to the mind wandering (famously, there are some Radio 4 productions apparently designed to be accompanied by doing the washing-up) but there is no danger of that happening with such brilliantly achieved writing.

The technical command Williams displays over his material is so complete, yet so lightly worn, that this seems to fly by in an instant, yet paradoxically also has the historical sweep and depth of character of the chunkiest Victorian novel.

This is hugely aided by Williams always knowing when to move focus to another character, when to switch from monologue to dialogue, and when to move time periods. There is just enough background in each section to make piecing the stories together relatively easy without resorting to clunky exposition; the broader political issues are also seamlessly integrated with individual stories.

warmth and a fierce humanity

The sound design of Axel Kacoutié and Eloise Whitmore helps with the jumps in time, providing a montage of news stories that anchors events. Louis Blatherwick’s pin-sharp sound recording and Darren J Benjamin’s music also add considerably to the effect.

This placing of the story in the wider world also gives pause for thought to any potential Lyceum audience members who might feel that a story of the Black experience in London is not relevant to them. Even leaving aside the lack of intellectual and moral foundations for such a viewpoint, it is demonstrably untrue when you have a story with such universal, as well as specific, resonance.

Roy Willaims. Pic: Robert Day

Recent events have shown that intolerance and institutionalised prejudice are still as widespread as ever, and any hard-won gains that we are in danger of taking for granted can easily be rolled back. There is great anger here, and perhaps even despair, but it is leavened with such warmth and a fierce humanity.

This is demonstrated by a set of outstanding performances. Familiar actors such as the startlingly versatile Cyril Nri (Neil) and the ever-magnificent Sharon D. Clarke (Gwen) are every bit as good as you would imagine, but less established names such as Olivier Huband, Ekow Quartey and Oliver Alvin-Wilson are equally convincing, with Saskia Ashdown contributing another urgent performance.

magnetic and troubling

Amaka Okafor deserves special mention for her role as Neil’s daughter Claire, in a section with Nri that is magnetic and troubling on so many levels. Ben Occhipinti’s direction is here, as elsewhere, so good that it is not even evident, with the performances so natural-sounding that we feel we are eavesdropping on a real conversation.

And these characters do seem real – their behaviour is not necessarily always admirable or even justifiable, but it is always understandable. That title may seem at once stark and overly ambitious, but its suggested scope is entirely justified by a production that is both personal and political, both illuminating and engrossing.

Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum/ Pitlochry Festival Theatre online
Friday 24 – Sunday 26 September 2021.
Evenings Fri/Sat: 7.30 pm; Sun Matinee: 4.30 pm (Virtual bar opens 30mins before start time).

All shows include a post-show talk:
Fri 24: Talk and Q & A with writer Roy Williams.
Sat 25: Talk and Q & A with director Ben Occhipinti and members of the cast.
Sun 26: In Context – an insight into the themes of the play with guests TBA

Information and tickets
Lyceum: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/a-roy-williams-soundstage-premiere
Pitlochry: www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com.


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