My One True Friend (Tristan Bates Theatre)

My One True Friend (Tristan Bates Theatre, until September 14th)

⭐⭐

Racism and reconciliation are at the heart of My One True Friend receiving its world premiere at Tristan Bates Theatre – but despite the serious message it all feels somewhat insubstantial.

Set in Rhodesia in the late 1970s Alexander Matthews’ play uses sumptuous poetic language and boasts some vibrant performances – but you can’t help feeling short-changed in a 70-minute piece that never quite takes off or says anything original.

The premise is promising: a white English widow about to celebrate her 60th birthday in Rhodesia is visited by family more interested in financial gain while a loyal black servant of 25 years who seems more devoted to her than to his own family is visited by a grandson who feels he can offer him freedom. Both racial and family tensions escalate but there’s an oddly broad focus where perhaps something more specific – and especially based on the intriguing relationship between servant and employer – would prove ultimately more satisfying.

There’s a whiff of Tennessee Williams about it all, with a snobbish Southern belle-like female character hiding deep-felt insecurities. There are even insects chirruping constantly outside the house – a staple part of the Williams dramatic soundscape. But also out there are trigger-happy white law enforcers instilling fear into the black population.

Given the setting one might expect some reference to multiracial democracy and the political power shifts in the country post 1979 but this is mysteriously absent in this slow burner, save for the son’s constant obsession with and chatter about an approaching Armageddon and nuclear holocaust, which appears to be more linked to the nuclear crisis of the early 1980s than acting as a metaphor.

Suzanna Hamilton plays cantankerous Lady L with a permanent bristle, but this is how the character is written and it makes it hard for the audience to have any sympathy or liking for her. Even when lumbered with an awkward soliloquy in the final third, which could have exposed her innermost thoughts to the audience at least, we learn too little.

Her awakening epiphany at the end seems more a result of annoyance that nobody has come to her birthday party than a genuine appreciation of the servant who she has treated no better than a slave for a quarter of a century. In itself it’s a good performance, with a cutting edge and a waspishness that would serve well in Williams or Wilde, but the objectionable bullying landowner deserves no pity or redemption in spite of Hamilton’s fervour.

Mensah Bediako’s Kapenie exudes a quiet faith and confidence and is undoubtedly the best drawn and most satisfactory character in the play. Whereas the others are largely one-dimensional, Bediako paints a portrait of someone with strong personal beliefs and a genuine desire and willingness to serve an employer who has treated him abominably. It’s hard to understand the smiles and laughter both characters finish with when “madame” continues to behave unpleasantly, but Bediako succeeds in making us care.

Theo Bamber and Lucy Lowe try hard to make their characters of Gordon and Oonagh interesting, providing most of the little humour in a play which is seldom witty. The son and daughter clearly feel they deserve something from their late father’s estate, caring nothing about a mother who, left on her own in a changing land, is like a fish out of water. But the two very watchable performers are unable to venture far given the script’s limited progression, though they make a valiant effort.

Joseph Rowe is also forceful in his role as Kapenie’s grandson, unable to understand why his grandfather is so wedded to injustice, but in spite of the actor’s urgency the text reduces him to long and repetitive speeches about looking at things from a fresh perspective.

The quality performances and atmospheric direction by Antony Law are insufficient to make the monotonous play itself engaging. It feels awkwardly like Five Characters In Search of a Plot.

There are so many things on the periphery that never develop and frustratingly dissolve without the chance to expand. It is never clear if the threat from the men outside (heard but not seen) has a deep political resonance, intending to portray brutal and racist police or is simply a crowd of drunken troublemakers. Lady L’s background is never spelt out, so we have no understanding of why a woman from Margate has ended up in a country on the brink of such important change.

Adrian Gee’s design creates a set that has the feel of a home from home, but it has to function as the houses of both employer and servant, so the important separation of the two families is lost.

It’s all as scratchy as the old records Lady L plays with a nostalgic pining that rarely creates any meaningful drama. It would be no surprise to learn that some had found the upbeat ending insulting, having skirted (or should that be danced?) its way around such complex and resonant issues. You leave wondering what someone such as Athol Fugard would have made of the same basic idea and characters.

The writer says in an introduction in the programme that tolerance is a key theme in the play, yet for all its verbose poetry and good intentions it skates around the darker realities of life in the Rhodesia of this period and ends up lacking clarity, signifying nothing.

David Guest

Image, Mark Senior

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/

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