Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Lyttelton, NT, London, review: Revival does glowing justice to play's mix of hurt and humour

August Wilson's 1984 play homes in on the contradictory status of black artists in a white-controlled recording industry

The richly detailed ensemble acting in Dominic Cooke's revival does glowing justice to the masterly mix of hurt and humour in this 1984 play by August Wilson.  We're in a Chicago recording studio in 1927 where the real-life Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues”, and her band of musicians have gathered to lay down some tracks.  The play homes in on the contradictory status of black artists in a white-controlled recording industry.  Sharon D Clarke's wittily redoubtable Rainey, with her implacable diva demands, knows that's she a big shot on sufferance in a restricted arena.  When she walks out of the studio, she can't even hail a cab on the streets of Chicago.  Once she stops making money for the whites, she'll go back to being “just a dog in the alley” to them.  

Lucian Msamati, Clint Dyer and Giles Terera superbly convey the cameraderie and the tensions amongst the band of musicians in their basement rehearsal room, with O-T Fagbenle outstanding as Levee, the comically cocky but dangerously insecure new trumpeter who epitomises how, manipulated by the industry's white masters, the black artists end up taking their frustrations out on one another. 

To May 18; 020 7452 3000​

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