Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, London, To May 18

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
By August Wilson

Lyttelton Theatre to May 18
National Theatre

Upper Ground,
South Bank,
London SE1 9PX

7.30pm; mats 2.15; see website for mats

Runs: 2hrs 35 mins incl 20 min interval.

TICKETS 020 7452 3000
In person: Mon– Sat, 9.30am-8pm

Review: by Carole Woddis of performance seen Feb 4, 2016:

Full of character, packs a punch, misses a chance or two
There’s a kind of irony in the National’s directorial choice for August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The story of a recording by the `mother’ of the Blues and the struggle for black musicians to control their own music-making, it was the Broadway hit that catapulted Wilson into the limelight in 1984 and the first in its author’s decalogy tracing the history of African-Americans in the 20th century.

It would have been very nice therefore if the NT – given where we now are in sensitivity to these things – could have matched Wilson’s intention in their directorial choice. And they would not have had to look very far with black-British director, Paulette Randall who directed five of Wilson’s productions for the Tricycle.

Lost opportunity though that be, Dominic Cooke’s production packs a terrific punch – not least in its final moment when a woman behind me couldn’t stop herself from moaning `oh no’ in her distress at the outcome.

Such is Wilson’s capacity to involve us in his characters, his dialogue seems to spring from the very sidewalk. In Ma Rainey, this is especially true with the Chicago session men brought in by the white recording company to accompany Ma Rainey.

For it is the musicians, their joshing and inter-personal relationships which takes up most of the play’s first half. Nor do we witness Sharon D Clarke’s Ma Rainey beginning to strut her musical stuff until a good hour in.

Yet, despite these structural imbalances, the play achieves a brilliant coup de theatre climaxing Wilson’s exploration of changing musical tastes controlled by white companies and the violent consequences of racism and abuse into the following generations – an issue as relevant in Britain today as when he wrote it regarding American society in the 1920s.

Ultz, a little bizarrely, places the musicians in a subterranean room whilst undeniably adding another dimension to the play’s sense of racial hierarchies.

But the play stands and falls by its quartet of session men. And here, they are without doubt incomparable, led by the great Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati with O-T Fagbenle as the dangerously ambitious, dramatic catalyst, Levee.

Go see, if you can. Life-changing.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
By August Wilson

Sturdyvant: Stuart McQuarrie
Irvin: Finbar Lynch
Cutler: Clint Dyer
Toledo: Lucian Msamati
Slow Drag: Giles Terera
Levee: O-T Fagbenle
Ma Rainey: Sharon D Clarke
Dussie Mae: Tamara Lawrance
Sylvester: Tunji Lucas
Policeman: John Paul Connolly

Director: Dominic Cooke
Designer: Ultz
Lighting Designer: Charles Balfour
Music: Tim Sutton
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Movement Director: Coral Messam
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Associate Designer: Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey
Associate Sound Designer: Giles Thomas
Company Voice Work: Jeannette Nelson & Cathleen McCarron
Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder
Staff Director: Ola Ince
Casting: Wendy Spon

First perf of this production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, at the Lyttelton Theatre, London, Feb 2, 2016

2016-02-08 09:42:38

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