Tell you what, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. After all, we’ve all got one. Although I think mine is a bit different from most people’s. Here’s mine: Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby. What? I was thinking of favourite Marvin Gaye songs, landsakes! Yep, I was nine when that came out. Even at that tender age I had decided that I Heard it through the Grapevine was a bit self-indulgently dour. But Too Busy was a happy song and I loved the fact that Marv didn’t get around to singing the title line until the end of the second chorus, he just let his backing singers do the rest. Funny the things you remember!
I was slightly alarmed when I realised that Soul was written by Roy Williams because I really didn’t like his Days of Significance which I saw earlier this year. However, this is a vastly superior work. It’s the story of the life of Marvin Gaye, as seen through the eyes of his two sisters Jeanne and Zeola – in fact the play was inspired by Jeanne’s memoir and the writer interviewed both sisters to obtain original, first-hand material. We see Marvin Snr and Alberta’s first meeting, followed by their quick marriage; fresh-faced young Marvin being brought up with his sisters; his father’s ruthless dealing out of violent discipline on the boy; his subsequent facing up to his father; his brief spell in the Air Force; then his developing career, but how it never brought him happiness. The second act is a thrilling but despairing look at the family’s life together in The Big House in Gramercy Place, Los Angeles; Marvin’s decline into cocaine addiction and vodka consumption; and finally his death at the hands of his father, who shot him when he was possessed with sheer anger – which struck me as being pretty much his father’s default mentality from the start.
Everyone knows that Marvin Gaye was killed by his father; so right from the start this play is fashioned as a classic tragedy – we already know its sad ending. We have our central tragic hero, and our villain, Marvin Snr; he accuses his son of sexual shenanigans with his mother so we also have some Oedipal content; Jeanne and Zeola watch from the outside and comment as the drama is played out, so they assume the role of the Chorus. Within seconds of the play starting we know that Marvin Snr’s God-fearing nature is of the brutal and unforgiving kind, refusing to have anything to do with Alberta’s child from an earlier union, and degrading his son into a whimpering mess with the application of his belt. You sense that from here on in, any happiness is only ever going to be temporary. Marvin Jnr’s professional (or otherwise) relationship with Tammi Terrell is brought to a vivid end on stage as she collapses on the floor with a brain tumour, just as they were making sweet music together (literally). The church that Marvin Jnr promises Marvin Snr never materialises. In the background, marriages take place, followed by divorces. Marvin Snr is revealed as a serial womaniser and a cross-dresser, which is an interesting combo. Alberta’s cancer takes hold and makes her weaker. There’s not a lot of happiness here – which makes a fascinating contrast with the frequently recurring and uplifting gospel music performed by the fantastic Royal and Derngate Community Choir. Nevertheless, I didn’t find the play remotely gloomy. I thought it was a fascinating study of two men who were their own worst enemy, and who, for 99% of the time, were at each other’s throats. The 1% when they weren’t, as epitomised in the very final scene, was very emotional. Marvin Jnr had a tear rolling down his cheek in that final scene – and I think I did too.
Jon Bausor has created an amazing set which not only looks absolutely the bees’ knees, but also solves that problem of how to create several acting spaces on the tiny stage of the Royal. When you enter the auditorium, it’s clear we’re in a church, with Pentecostal blue curtains behind a devout looking podium, and plush carpeted stairs flowing down into the audience, taking out Row A with the majestic sweep of their woollen twist. Before it started, I did confess to Mrs Chrisparkle that at any moment Kenny Everett could emerge from behind the curtain with his huge hands shouting Brother-lee love! Yes, I know, tasteless. Above the stage, Marvin’s parents’ bedroom, dominated by a cross. Downstairs, basic furniture that provides sufficient but not excessive comfort. For the second act, a much more luxurious main room, with a carpeted set of stairs with so deep a pile you could lose an entire foot in it; an enviable set of hifi separates (made my mouth water) and The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s massive orange leather three-piece suite that she bought in 1973 when she was feeling flush. A really superb, flexible and accurately furnished set. Also, hats off for the lighting design with its variety of moods and uses – subtle yet very effective.
The performances are really strong throughout and I thought each member of the cast absolutely gave it their all. As our guides to the story, I really enjoyed the performances of Petra Letang and Mimi Ndiweni as Jeanne and Zeola, the older sister more headstrong and traditional, the younger more fun-loving and forgiving. They had a nice double-act going, with gentle bickering about how much of the story to reveal and with divided loyalties when it came to supporting one family member over another. I’d spotted young Keenan Munn-Francis in the cast of The Scottsboro Boys as being One To Watch, and I must say he is on great form here as the young Marvin, singing sweetly and boldly standing up to his father’s tyranny. Nice boxing work too! Adjoa Andoh, as Alberta, trod the tricky path of supporting her difficult husband even when he’s patently the family despot; beautifully trying to smooth the waters of family disharmony and doing her best always to support her son. There’s also a cracking performance by Abiona Omonua as Tammi Terrell, a 60s vision of psychedelia, firmly putting Marvin in his place and giving us a hint of their fantastic duet. Yes, I agree, it would have been terrific to hear them perform You Are Everything all the way through, but drama must have its way.
At the heart of the story is the antagonistic relationship between father and son, and this created some terrific electricity on stage. Leo Wringer is excellent as Marvin Snr; in his younger days inscrutably malign, you sense hiding his bullying and controlling nature beneath the façade of the Church, using attack as the best form of defence when his womanising ways are found out; in his later years, a slow contempt for his son continually growing – although you do get the sense that if only Marvin Jnr had kept his promise and given him his church, he would have been happy simply to control and domineer his worshippers and not his family. Nathan Ives-Moiba is perfect as Marvin Jnr; at first ambitious and dedicated to his work – I loved the brief dance/dream sequence of him at the piano, trying to create a masterpiece – only to be overwhelmed by his drug addiction and reduced to pathetic desperation, paranoia making him believe there are people outside “out to get him”, and scrabbling round the floor in his dressing gown trying to save spilt coke. His death is provocatively staged, with him offering himself up to his father, arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross; but, like Eleanor Rigby, no one was saved.
I came away from this production awed and thrilled. Full of passion, tragedy, and the frailty of man. I felt desperately sorry for the characters but totally impressed with the insight into what Marvin Gaye’s life – and death – must have been like. A co-production with the Hackney Empire, it’s moving to that theatre on 15th June after its season at the Royal and Derngate has ended. Cannot recommend it too highly!