Theatre that nourishes you is the most wonderful feeling, and that’s how I felt after seeing Nine Night, a warm homely play that examines the fractures in a family placed under the severest of pressures by the death of the matriarch that’s been holding them all together.
You see, Gloria is dead. Gloria the sister, Gloria the mother, Gloria the grandmother… Even the Gloria the great-grandmother. This pivotal woman that was the centre of her extended family is gone. And so, in line with her Jamaican heritage (Gloria immigrated to the UK from Jamaica), a nine-night wake is going to be held in her honour.
Not that her daughter, Lorraine (Franc Ashman), is particularly pleased. After caring for her sick mother for almost four months, she is tired and stressed out. She’s also not entirely thrilled with the prospect of catering to relatives who were nowhere to be found when she needed help with her mother’s care.
Add to that, her Aunt Maggie (let’s all hear it for the magnificent Cecelia Noble) is adamant that her sister’s wake must be fully Jamaican – nine nights of loud throngs, dancing, and toasts of rum for the dearly departed to ensure that, by the ninth night, Gloria’s soul can pass on to the next world in peace. Only Lorraine is expected to do all the catering to meet that requirement.
And so appears the first crack in the delicate china of this family. And it is soon reveals many others for it is the myriad of fractures across the generations that debut writer Natasha Gordon has weaved into her play that makes Nine Night as richly rewarding as it is. For as well as the typical family feuding and petty jealousies, there’s also the culture and generation clashes of first and second-generation immigrants, as well as interracial relationships, single mothers, young mothers, feminism and long-held secrets.
There is so much to love in this show. Yes, it’s funny and yes, it’s rich with the customs and tradition of Jamaican culture which is a welcome addition to the (extremely White) London theatre scene. And I’m so here for the unapologetic use of patois in this play. I can just see now the traditional NT audiences craning in, muttering ‘I can’t understand what they’re saying.’ And, you know, I’m here for that, I really am.
The acting is top drawer too, particularly Cecilia Noble and Ricky Fearon who shine as Maggie and her husband Vince. They bring a lot of unspoken beneath-the-surface tension to their comedic touches. And director Roy Alexander Weise only adds to his ever-increasing reputation as a director with the Midas touch as he injects some great space and pauses in this production that only add to the sense of a simmering tension heating up to come to the boil.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t hoping for a bit more from this production. The big finale doesn’t quite hit the heart as much as it should, and that’s largely because the characters don’t get much chance to add nuance and complexity to the bucket they’ve been placed in, whether that be middle child syndrome, abandoned daughter, brother burdened with toxic notions of masculinity etc. etc.
For all the richness in this production, I would have loved more emotional depth. It’s only 1h 50 running time and I would have been happy for a good 20 minutes more if only to explore more of the intergenerational clashes, and how much would I have loved a slower burn of the resentment between Gloria’s children. But these would have been cherries on the top only, for Nine Night is a piece of feel-good theatre that continues the (at times, glacially slow) movement towards more diverse representation on stage and off.
Long may it continue.
National Theatre, London, to May 26.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Helen Murray.