Theatre review: The Amen Corner, Olivier, National Theatre, London

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In the English theatre, you can go for years without bumping into either of the two best-known plays by James Baldwin, the African-American essayist, novelist and eloquent spokesman for the Civil Rights movement.

So all praise to the National Theatre and to director Rufus Norris for making this rare revival of Baldwin's debut drama The Amen Corner (1954) such a deeply affecting occasion. The humanity and humour of the writing glow in this Travelex £12 production as does the openness with which Baldwin bears witness to his own emotional perplexities.   

Marianne Jean-Baptiste turns in a magnificent performance as Sister Margaret Alexander, pastor of a Pentecostal corner church in 1950s Harlem. Her body pulsating with the spirit as she delivers her fiery sermons, Margaret keeps her flock of “saints” in check with severe doctrinaire directives (better to be jobless than drive a truck for a liquor firm etc) and she gets away with it because of her reputation as a woman who dedicated her life to the Lord when, as a single mother, she was abandoned by her hard-drinking jazz musician spouse. 

His surprise return, now mortally ailing, ten years later, reveals a different version of the past – with decisive repercussions for her 18-year-old son David (a beautifully confused and torn Eric Kofi Abrefa) who has inherited his father's musical gifts and longs to escape the church, and for her congregation who are itching to oust their severe taskmaster.

The ranks of this latter bunch are swollen here by the excellent London Community Gospel Choir, whose hymns and spirituals, ranging from the bouncily raucous to the searchingly sensitive, flood the Olivier and are sometimes in an ironic, faintly ominous relation to the narrative juncture.

The expression “Praise the Lord” never far from her lips, Cecilia Noble is hilarious as a wheezy-voiced, bulky Sister Moore whose seamless glissades from supportive piety to peevishly competitive insinuation epitomise the moral hypocrisy of these “saints”. 

Lucian Msamati has an uphill task in the role of the dying revenant Luke, expected to collapse at regular intervals and yet be raffishly sexy and charming so as to instil the sense that Margaret denied Life in rejecting this dubious figure for the Lord. That aspect feels rigged and under-investigated but the brilliant Jean-Baptiste, as she bleakly and courageously sheds the pastor's white gown of office, shows you a protagonist who has to lose almost everything in order to achieve wisdom and Sharon D Clarke brings a lovely obdurate wit to the part of Odessa, her sister and staunch ally. Go. 

To August 14; 020 7452 3000

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