James Baldwin's tragedy of a woman who applies the varnish of the Lord to cover the wounds of her past, only to have it stripped away layer by painful layer, crackles to life in a frenzy of pure-cut holy roller religion. Sister Margaret leads her small flock along the path of righteousness with unbending puritan piety. But when Luke, her louche jazz musician husband, returns after a 10-year separation just in time to collapse across the kitchen table with terminal TB, the rigidly heaven-bound structure of her life begins to collapse. Her congregation ferments rebellion, her son abandons his strict Christian upbringing in favour of the life of a strolling jazzman, and the carefully applied coating is chipped away to leave her weeping over the gaping holes in her life which religion has merely papered over. However, the play marches towards its inevitable conclusion to a syncopated beat, with gospel music and humour applied lavishly - all the better to counterpoint the tragedy, climaxing with Luke's death downstage to the accompaniment of a lively devotional jive in the hall above.
The outstanding performance comes from Michael Price as Margaret's son David. In his first professional role, he displays both excellent comic timing and a fine feel for Hamletian soul-searching, and his departing speech to his mother - "I want to be a man. It's time you let me be a man" - leaves the audience in a breathless hush where one can sense a thousand hands teetering on the edge of an ovation.
There is an Arthur Miller feel to the way in which the play depicts the quiet and desperate inevitability of Margaret's entropic shift from order to chaos; but at the same time the story is firmly grounded in the blend of fervent religion and soul-destroying poverty unique to the ghetto. As part of Bristol Old Vic's on-going commitment to black theatre, the production is not only an excellent opportunity to see this rarely staged play, but also a chance to see some fine performers demonstrating that there is a great deal more to black British acting than bit-parts in The Bill.
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