Tuesday 19 January 2016

Theatre Review: The Rolling Stone (Orange Tree)

Fiston Barek and Faith Alabi in The Rolling Stone (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Winner of the 2013 Bruntwood Prize Judges Award, Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, where the production was cross-cast with a new version of Anna Karenina. An exploration of gay desire in the repressive context of contemporary Uganda, Urch’s play gained mostly favourable responses, though some critics suggested that Ellen McDougall’s production would have benefited from a smaller space.

It gets it here. Transferred to the Orange Tree, as the first production in Paul Miller’s second year as Artistic Director, The Rolling Stone reveals itself, in the right-there intimacy of this auditorium, to be a nuanced, thought-provoking and – finally – blazingly intense piece that demonstrates an Ibsen-esque attention to the problematic intersection of public and private lives.

The title alludes to a Ugandan newspaper, a scurrilous rag which, in 2010, began publishing pictures of homosexuals and urging people to "out" any such deviants who are believed to be threatening the moral life of the nation. (The publications led to arrests, assaults and murders.) Church elder Mama (Jo Martin) sees the scare as the opportunity for some crowd-pleasing (and lucrative) fire-and-brimstone preaching on the part of the newly installed pastor Joe (Sule Rimi). What she – and Joe – are unaware of is that Joe’s brother Dembe (Fiston Barek) is gay, and involved in a relationship with Sam (Julian Moore-Cook), a doctor of Ugandan and Northern Irish parentage.  

Scooping a Bruntwood Prize hasn’t always been a firm guarantee of a play’s quality, but The Rolling Stone certainly proves its worth. While some of the banter between Dembe and Sam feels a little bit calculated in striving for crowd-pleasing comic effects, Urch’s writing is adroit where it counts, with the protagonists' attitudes to religion and sexuality conveyed through rich and robust language and cliché-defying characterisation. 

The play is undoubtedly a melodrama in terms of its construction. But it shows how impactful that form can be when approached with truth and sensibility, the drama building to a shattering finale that’s worthy of Arthur Miller at his finest. (In its concern with whistle-blowing and its presentation of the "outing" as a witch-hunt motivated in part by personal score-settling, Miller’s The Crucible is an evident intertext here.)  

 Fiston Barek and Sule Rimi in The Rolling Stone (Photo Manuel Harlan)

McDougall delivered a rather wonky production of The Glass Menagerie last year but shows total assurance in this venture. Staged simply and prop-free, with slightly overlapping scenes, and punctuated by stirring singing of spirituals, the production has pace and rhythm, and is boosted by terrific, heart-grabbing performances.

Jo Martin’s superb Mama blends manipulation and maternal concern to compelling effect, locating a strangely valiant and vulnerable core at the heart of a character whose actions and rhetoric are often reprehensible. Charismatic Sule Rimi brings heat to Joe’s preaching, implicating the audience as his congregation. Fiston Barek insightfully conveys Dembe’s oscillations between self-denial and self-belief. And Faith Omole and Faith Alabi maximise their opportunities as Dembe’s sister Wummie and his proposed paramour Naome, the former forced to make her own sacrifice, the latter seeking refuge in silence.

As potent as the play’s elements of social critique undoubtedly are, The Rolling Stone is generous and mature in its avoidance of finger-pointing, and in its refusal to demonise any of its own characters. The torn-from-the-headlines element charges the drama with an electric current of urgency. But Urch’s play finally transcends mere topicality, expanding into a more universal exploration of the complexities of family, loyalty and love. Not to be missed.  

Booking until 20th February. Further details here

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