THEATRE / He do the police: Jeffrey Wainwright reviews James Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie

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James Baldwin is among the most unnervingly expressive of writers. His characteristic mode is an open-breasted eloquence, though it's not a contradiction to say that his writing is also eminently rhetorical, full of strikingly posed questions, reiterations, accumulations of phrases and adjectives. It has the preacher's desperate confidence in the word.

Such a rhetorical voice is very often single and absolute. Of course Baldwin has a cause - to do battle with the plague of racism - but what is so striking about his 1964 play Blues for Mr Charlie is how many-voiced it is.

The situation is as rawly divided as could be. In a small Mississippi town, a young black man, Richard Henry, the recently-returned son of the local minister, has been shot. Even the authorities acknowledge that Lyle Britten, storekeeper and prominent supremacist swaggerer is the obvious suspect. Moving between the black and the white communities, the play covers the succeeding weekend and Lyle's trial, interspersing the forward moving action with skilful flashbacks.

The voices of black and white, male and female, are angry, noble, reflective, confessional, foul, elegaic, bombastic, deliberate, extemporary . . . One tone is set by the opening tirade (a stomping delivery by Nicholas Monu), another by the stoical, undeceived dignity of Joan Hooley's Mother Henry, another by the grieving sigh of Cecilia Noble's Juanita. As the minister, Wyllie Longmore has the set piece pulpit rhetoric, and it is round his massive, erect effort to hold a moral centre that can contain his Christianity, his justified wrath, and his own weaknesses, that the others' currents of rage and reason eddy.

In our first glimpse of Lyle, he is standing over Richard's body. In the second he is dandling his infant son. The same rough- footed vernacular forms his speech at both extremes. 'No man is a villain in his own eyes,' wrote Baldwin about this character, and the triumph of his creation, superbly realised by David Schofield in yet another fine performance here, is that we can see Lyle through his own eyes. Essential to this perception is his wife Jo, idolised and tyrannised in equal measure, made a compelling figure of pale, scrimped uncertainty by the excellent Barbara Barnes. Richard is intelligent enough to play fatally on the way racial and sexual anxiety are bound up in Lyle. But despite his status as damaged angel and martyr, in Paterson Joseph's kinetic performance there is a cocksure edge to Richard's bitterness which makes him Lyle's necessary counterpart in the symbolic conflict.

Negotiating between Blacktown and Whitetown, is the town liberal Parnell James. Born rich, Europeanised, poetic and sardonic, he is that classical American literary hero, the lost man of sensibility. He is a dangerously stereotypical character but is made distinct and unsentimentally impressive by Nicholas Le Prevost. But he cannot really win a place in this society, and he knows this movingly.

Yet it is not only for his characteristic ability to draw so many good performances that Gregory Hersov should be acclaimed. His entire production is profoundly conceived and executed. It is visualised and based with an overwhelming emotional power, and the use of the Manchester Community Gospel Choir, whose voices soar and float round the great dome surrounding the theatre, is a stroke of inspired magnificence. The opposite poles of eloquence, most elemental and most strong, are the first and last sounds we hear: the pistol shot and these heroic young voices.

To 14 Nov; Box off 061-833 9833.