Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, National Theatre, Cottesloe, London

Rich tapestry of poverty and poetry in post-war Trinidad

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The Independent Culture

Thirty years after it won a newspaper playwriting competition, Errol John's Trinidadian "street scene" was happily revived, twice, at Stratford East and the Almeida, in 1986 and 1988.

It's taken nearly another 30 years for the National Theatre to arrange an audience in the Cottesloe for Old Mack's busy scrubland of a backyard in Port of Spain, where neighbours live "like hogs," bickering and squabbling while the night air fills with snatches of blues, steel drums and calypso, not unlike Gershwin's skid row in Porgy and Bess.

Or, indeed, Lorraine Hansberry's Chicago Southside in A Raisin in the Sun. Michael Buffong's production doesn't quite nail that era, and the callow GI messing with Jenny Jules's imperious good-time girl Mavis resembles more a chorus boy from South Pacific than a sweaty war veteran.

The play, though, is as euphoniously poetic as its title suggests. Life is at breaking point, especially for Danny Sapani's heroically flawed Ephraim (a role the author himself once played), a bus driver with dreams of leaving.

He's enmeshed with the family across the yard, where Charlie (Jude Akuwudike, who played another role in the Almeida revival) has bungled a café robbery designed to help his daughter (Tahirah Sharif) through high school; and where Rosa (Jade Anouka), who works in the café, is assailed by its owner, played by a white-suited Burt Caesar with careful tread and sly deviousness.

A rich and satisfying domestic tapestry is overseen by the splendidly haggard and fulsomely resigned Martina Laird as Sophia, Charlie's wife, a role justly described by Kenneth Tynan – who organised the play competition – as "a black Anna Magnani".

This is the world of hardship and disappointment that drove Ephraim and his like to Britain to find roles in the mid-1970s immigrant comedies of Mustapha Matura. Cricket was the other route of escape; Charlie blew his Test Match chances by denouncing the colour bar on a tour to Jamaica.

Rosa's pregnancy results in a scene of shocking savagery that precipitates a powerful conclusion. And we are left with decidedly mixed feelings about Ephraim, who abandoned the grandmother who raised him in a poor house.

To 9 June (020 7452 3000)