The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess. The Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 to 26 October 2019. 4****. William Russell.

The Niceties
By Eleanor Burgess.
The Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9 ED to 26 October 2019.
Mon – Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 3pm. Mat Thu 24 Oct 3pm. No performance Fri 25 Oct.
Runs 2 hours One interval.
TICKETS: 01223 357 851.
Review: William Russell 9 October.
Janine is white, a history professor in her sixties, distinguished, an authority consulted by others about the past. One of her best students, Zoe, has come in so they can discuss a paper she has written about the American Revolution. Janine, played by Janie Dee, is critical of its style and of its contents, insisting that Zoe needs to work on it, to go back to the source material. Zoe, who needs good grades so that she will get the job she wants when she graduates, argues back and what starts off reasonably enough as encounter between a possibly too know it all professor and the girl, who reveals herself as a campus activist for black rights, escalates into a blazing row. Dee is suave, tolerant, and rises to the bait while Moronke Akinola, making her professional debut as Zoe, is impressive, stubborn and rather more devious than one would think at first. It is a splendidly provocative and fierce play which should set people arguing about whose side they are on and about the issues it raises. The paper is about the American revolution. Janine insists that Zoe must go back to the source material, Zoe argues that she is black, she knows she is right because she is black, and that what nobody is taking into consideration is that the people most affected by the revolution were the slaves and they had no voice. Indeed there is no source material to go back to for them, the material being that left behind by the white Americans. The arguments in Act One are presented fairly, the battle is real and Burgess takes no sides. In Act Two she seems to abandon that and Janine is accused – and perhaps convicted – of racism. It is a play of ideas, a play that will make audiences argue afterwards, a little like the teacher student battle in Oleanna perhaps, and this European premier is another tribute to the policy at the Finborough. It is good to see Dee stretching her talents as a serious actress again and Akinola conjures up an exasperating, difficult conflicted woman beautifully. She may be claiming to speak for those people with no voice, but Zoe, for all the problems she may face as a young black woman, is not underprivileged, she is studying at an elite East Course university not toiling on a cotton plantation, a master of her mobile phone. One reason for not going back to work on the thesis as Janine demands is that she has demos to attend at the weekend. Go, think, argue afterwards – it is a stimulating work which leaves one wanting to accept that Zoe has all the arguments but feeling that Janine is not, as she gradually emerges, racist but part of an intellectual white academic world where things are done in a certain way, and has not understood the changes in society that have taken place around her which alter that way of looking at the past. The killer punch at the end seems perhaps unfair. Two handers are always tricky to stage and director Matthew Little manages to keep this a battle you do not stop watching.

Janine: Janie Dee.
Zoe: Moronke Akinole.

Director: Matthew Iliffe.
Designer: Rachel Stone.
Lighting Designer: Lucia Sanchez.
Sound Designer: Kate Marlais.
Production photography: Ali Wright.

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