As part of a large Irish family, I am only too aware of how tense a wake can get so it’s reassuring to know the same flashpoints can happen at a traditional Jamaican Nine Night.
Great art takes you into worlds you have no experience of, and I had no idea that Jamaicans send off their dead off with nine nights of mourning, which is what one extended London family are doing for their mum Gloria
It’s still that this funny and often emotionally raw play was Natasha Gordon’s debut, which a strong cast bring to life informed by a deep understanding of its meaning, and the Playhouse has revived it part of their Out of Many Festival that celebrates 60 years of Jamaican independence.
Smartly Nine Night starts before the death as the seemingly saintly single mum Lorriane (Shereener Browne) who grew up in the UK cares for her mum with her rebellious daughter Anita, much to chagrin of her damaged go-getting businessman brother Robert (Daniel Poyser), who is dealing with a shock revelation from his wife Sophie
Gordon drops into this toxic sibling rivalry a wonderfully comic overbearing first generation Auntie Maggie (Josephine Melville) spreading discord and gossip to the embarrassment of her long-suffering husband Vince (Wayne Rollins) who has helped the family keep a roof over their heads.
As the nights tick over with mourners coming and going each night eating and partying as the tensions in the family are peeled back, and Gordon lobs in a dramatic hand grenade in as their half-sister Trudy (Andrea Davy) touches down from Jamacia as all their secrets and different interpretations of family history pour out.
Nine Night shows that grief is universal but interrogates why different cultures create their own ways to cope with what are really variations of the same process. What they do share is that mourning can become an opportunity to settle score scores, or speak your own truths about the dead, which is exactly what happens as their mum passes on to what they hope is a better place.
Gordon also looks at how different generations deal with making lives in Britain as Lorraine tells her daughter you don’t mess with traditions but has little time for Auntie Maggie constantly telling her this is how they do it in Jamacia.
Browne is the still centre of this play until the final scene when she powerfully exorcises her own demons delivering a searing monologue full of guilt, loss and love for her mum that is as good anything you will see this year. Poyner is equally good subtly as a proud black man grappling with his sense of abandonment by his father, and his need for status in a nation he feels doesn’t truly accept him.
Despite all the angst about family, and how migrants find their place in a new culture, this is often a very funny play. Melville has great fun playing the clucking, foolish Maggie, and her partnership with Rollins as her affable husband with some wicked dance moves is pure comedy gold. Davy is emotional dynamite as Trudy merrily creates mayhem reminding her siblings where they come from, and the high price that can be paid to create a better life.
This is one of those productions where many in the audience audibly engage with what they are seeing because they have lived it, and there’s a huge gasp of horror when Lorraine wounds her brother with a secret during one of their regular clashes.
Some plays don’t merit coming back, but everything about this version of Nine Night works thanks to Amanda Huxtable’s dynamic direction, and actors who have totally bought into a ritual they are very familiar with.
More than that it’s a no holds barred tribute to the local Jamaican community who helped create the first Caribbean Carnival in the UK and have contributed so much to the cultural life of this city.
Nine Night runs until Saturday 15th October. To book 0113 213 7700 or www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 7th October 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★