THEATRE / Whims of the father: Jeffrey Wainwright on Edgar White in Manchester

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The Independent Culture
This revival of Edgar White's The Nine Night is helping celebrate two anniversaries. The Umoja Theatre Company, touring the show from its London base, is 10 years old this year, and it arrived in Manchester last week just in time to celebrate the second anniversary of the Nia Centre for African and Caribbean Culture situated in Hulme and Moss Side. It is a good play to mark such occasions, since, within the bounds of a domestic comedy, it surveys so much of the cultural complexity of Afro-Caribbean life in England.

After 30 years in the England where he and his wife Irene have raised their three children, Hamon Williams is suddenly smitten with the realisation that he must drop everything and return to Jamaica. However this impulse does not arrive until late in the play's second half, and then, despite the immediate consternation of the rest of the family, it is resolved with implausible speed. Hamon's revelation is in fact more a way of ending the play than the impetus of its whole action. Structurally this seems frustrating, since nearly two-thirds of the work is a series of set-piece vignettes and confrontations which do not advance the story. Viewed retrospectively, however, they show just why Hamon is moved the way he is.

The differing accents of his three grown-up children illustrate the confusions he has to face. Izak, the second son, is the only one to share his own Jamaican tones and patois, but, obdurately unemployed, he is in open combat with his father's rigorous work ethic. Sabina, named after Hamon's beloved Kingston cricket ground, is his 'princess', but she is busy elocuting her way up in the world via a job in a bank and a white boyfriend. The elder son, Eulet, is passing into another current of the English mainstream as a professional footballer and has already perfected sarf-London for after-match interviews. The greatest strength of the play is that all these different transactions with an England whose ways Hamon has long thought 'more mysterious than a duck's dick' are comprehensible and sympathetic.

Hamon begins each day with a mug of stout, raw egg and condensed milk, a regime not as clearly beneficial for him as for Jason Rose's forceful performance. Hamon commands, but really his sway now extends little beyond his own chair. His potency is satirised, but indulged too. When Irene discovers he has another grown daughter in Jamaica, the plotting jerks forward only to be becalmed in the assumption that this is the kind of thing men do.

The really key character, Irene - played with beautiful, relaxed dignity by Angela Wynter - is never given quite enough space to put a vital perspective on all of this. Her stoicism, knowingness and pragmatism do not save her from hurt, and although she has her say, she is brushed aside in the manly rush back to Sabina Park. Gloria Hamilton's production makes a funny and provocative evening, and to judge from its lively reception at the Nia, one with as much recognition for a West Indian audience as it has enlightenment for the rest of us.

Tour details 071-328 9521

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