One of the great things about theatre, gentle reader, is that you never stop learning. The title of this 1965 play by Lanford Wilson comes from the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 11 (that’s what Wikipedia says anyway, so it must be right) and is the name of an ancient cure-all medicine first used in the mountainous Gilead region of present-day Jordan. Who knew? It’s also the name of a traditional African American spiritual, where the poor suffering singer looks to the balm of Gilead to heal their sin-sick soul. A starkly ironic title then, for this play (which has been brought up to date by the Creative Acting team and set in the UK) observing the criss-cross lives of addicts, pushers and sex workers as they socialise, fight and support each other at a drop-in café.
The Maidwell Hall was transformed into a vibrant and dynamic stage area, with seating on three sides, all the café tables spread in the centre, but also with satellite acting areas; some remote bedrooms and refuges, and some pathetic (in that it wouldn’t keep you warm) cardboard box housing. At one stage we were asked to leave our seats and walk back towards the entrance where a hotel bedroom scene unfolded; it must have felt strange for the couple in bed suddenly to have thirty odd strangers just march into their bedroom. I felt the whole staging gave the play an immersive edge that always appeals to me.
It’s a challenging play, with so much going on all at the same time, and so many concurrent conversations striving for our attention, that at first I felt disappointed in myself at not being able to concentrate on everything that’s going on. But I guess that discomfort is what the writer wants to you feel; if you were at a party, say, and groups of people were having various conversations all at the same time, you wouldn’t expect to be able to eavesdrop and comprehend them all. This also added to that edginess that permeates the play. The whole cast excelled at creating a sense of disparate, passionate conversation between couples, spilling over into small groups, and sometimes uniting everyone in the same rowdy exchange; very effective organised chaos.
At the heart of the play is Joe, played by Joe Roberts; a seemingly decent enough guy who clearly knows right from wrong but in that environment it’s hard always to do the right thing; and, essentially, he’s weak. He’s got himself involved with an unseen underworld boss by name of Frank, whom he owes for the supply of some addictive substance that Joe passes on to his customers at 100% markup. Nice work if you can get it, and Joe keeps it reasonably discreet. But is he savvy enough both to service his clientele and to grease the palm of his supplier in a timely manner? After meeting new girl in town Darlene, a classy American who’s a definite upgrade on the usual girls he meets (no offence, ladies), he decides it’s time to change his ways – especially as a night of passion with Darlene means he misses a vital meeting with his underworld bosses. Another lesson from this play is that every action has its consequences; for Joe, the consequences are considerable.
Charlie-Dawn Sadler gives a strong performance as Darlene, nicely balancing the character’s superior nature with just a hint of vulnerability mixed with genuine warmth. She has to deliver a very long solo speech which completely breaks up the pattern of the rest of the play; it’s a tough call to hold the audience’s attention for that length of time but Ms Sadler nailed it. Mr Roberts brings out some of the lightness and comedy of what is a growingly dismal situation, and he took the role with great confidence and presence. I’ve no idea if Mr Roberts is Liverpudlian or if Ms Sadler is American, but if not their accents were tremendous and beautifully sustained. It would be fascinating to see them perform other roles in different accents.
The production benefits from the fact all the roles were very convincingly performed and, I think, for the first time for me watching a large cast of Northampton Uni students in a production, there wasn’t one performer who underdelivered. But I would like to mention a few names who stood out for me. I particularly liked Bobbie-Lee Scott as Dopey; her role requires her to address the audience directly which she did with magnificent cheekiness and great comic timing – there were some wonderful asides that felt off-the-cuff but I’m sure weren’t. Jemma Bentley as Lyn, the café proprietor, gives a strong performance of natural authority, and filling out the character so that we really understood her; a calming influence where required, but a Rottweiler if she’s crossed.
For technical vocal clarity I appreciated the clear and powerful delivery by Amber Jane Harrison as Ann, the strident prostitute with a soft side; and, in relatively minor roles, I also thought that both Tiana Thompson as Rust and Adam Holmes as Martin (I hope I have identified those characters correctly!) were really convincing as hopeless-case junkies to whom your heart went out as they crashed through life. But for me the star performance was by James Alistair Walker as Franny, with a truly strong stage presence in his day-job appearance as Frank’s enforcer – never before have steady, deliberate footsteps sounded so intimidating – and even more so when leading her spare time drag/transvestite lifestyle. Clear, cutting, precise delivery, with a great feel for the language and total control of his space. Definitely One To Watch.
It’s a very thought-provoking play and surprisingly well transported from its original American setting to a very credible and contemporary British equivalent. There’s great commitment from the cast to make the whole show work, and, although it’s not always a comfortable watch, it’s always compelling. Congratulations all!