Theatre / Resurrection Bush Theatre, London

Click to follow
Maureen Lawrence's Resurrection is the second play this spring to speak up on behalf of an 18th century negro. Theatre de Complicite's Foe took a revisionary look at the Robinson Crusoe myth, substituting for Defoe's chatty noble savage version of Friday a brooding, mutilated figure whose story could never be told because he had lost the tongue to tell it and who became a lost soul when brought over to London.

Resurrection also focuses on the fortunes in England of a former slave, but this time not a fictional one. Francis Barber (1735-1801) was born in Jamaica and arrived here at the age of 15. The son of the boy's owner was a friend of Doctor Johnson and, in 1752, he dispatched Frank to the recently widowed great man of letters who brought him up more as a son than a servant and arranged for him to be educated. Except for two intervals, the now free Frank remained with Johnson to the end, even after his own marriage to a white woman. Named as principal beneficiary in the author's will, he moved his family to Lichfield but was not accepted into society, lost his fortune and died in a workhouse infirmary in Stafford.

Lawrence's two-hander is intent on showing that, despite Johnson's outspoken anti-slave trade views and despite his protectiveness of Frank, there's a sense in which his treatment of the black man can be regarded as imprisoning emotional exploitation and thus as slavery in another guise. To this end, the emphasis is laid less on what Johnson was giving Frank than on what Johnson illicitly derived from the relationship.

For example, when Tyrone Huggins's sensitively portrayed Frank objects that if he goes to school "I shall be a freak among the children", Malcolm Rennie's dependant, blubbery northern comic of a Johnson replies that they are both freaks. The idea that he needs Frank as "a shadow self", a focus for false identification, crops up, too, in the play's handling of the will. The condition that Frank move to Lichfield, Johnson's native town, was made because he thought his servant would stand less chance there of being swindled. The insinuation here, though, is that just as powerful a reason was Johnson's sentimental need to think of Frank in his old childhood haunts and that this blinded him to the prejudice the latter would disastrously encounter. Again, Johnson's dependency on Frank especially at night when his spirit failed him is shown, rightly, as a strain on Frank's marriage but the play fails to emphasise that Johnson eventually allowed the whole family to live with him.

Played in Penny Ciniewicz's production on a floor composed of mattresses, both acts are fashioned round a death bed. In the second, the dying Frank keeps conjuring up the ghost of his old master whose generosity is now flung back at him, recharacterised as "conscience money, blood money... you can never give enough for what was done to me and mine". Moral categories are crassly blurred in this engulfing final gesture, causing the play to lose what ever claims it had to distinction.

n Booking to 1 June (0181-743 3388)