Hampstead Theatre kicks off its new season with a timely, seriously challenging revival of a rarity from its own back-catalogue. Alfred Fagon’s play The Death of a Black Man received its award-winning world premiere at this venue in 1975. A hardened cynic might say that the decision to take a fresh look at this ebullient, funny and provocative three-hander on the main stage was an obvious choice; it arrives in the grievous light of the death of George Floyd, under the knee of a racist white police officer in Minneapolis last year. But the cynic would be wrong.
With a crack cast of actors in the tortuous, torturous triangle on which the play centres, Dawn Walton’s revival is palpably a labour of love. It’s alive to the play’s impious humour and swagger as well as to its anger. It is alert to how the play feels even more prescient now than it would have done in 2020 (when the revival would have happened, if it had not been for Covid-19 and lockdowns). But it gives us, in a great yeasty wallop, the play that Fagon wrote. It does not burden the piece with the wisdom of hindsight, nor does it try to disguise or minimise what now comes across, revealingly, as the play’s dated gender politics. This is the King’s Road in Chelsea in the Seventies, baby, and the sexual tensions are unresolved, clouded in the fug from the ganja spliffs.
The main character is Shakie, 18 years old and on a money-making mission. He wants to redistribute to his own bank account the wealth of the white American tourists and beatniks of the King’s Road, who like to pick up cheap antiques and imagine that they are getting into Black Lives by doing so.