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‘Nine Night’ at the National Theatre, London – review

'A hotbed of seething emotion'

By Will Stroude

Welcome to ‘nine-night – a ritualistic, celebratory, spiritual period of mourning within Jamaican culture.

Over the course of nine nights, people arrive at the home of the deceased and aided by food, drink and music they create an atmosphere where the spirit is able to appear and ultimately pass over to the other side. It’s an exhausting and exhilarating period steeped in tradition and culture.

Lorraine has been her mother’s carer right up until her death and is now the host of the nine-night celebration. It’s one last final burden. As the family members start to descend she navigates personalities and family politics while barely keeping it together herself.

Natasha Gordon’s play is full of heart, big characters and all confined to a small domestic space under the heavy burden of grief. It’s a hotbed of seething emotion that bubbles and brews until it all finally explodes.

The themes are many: arguably too many, as although fascinating some never get the chance to be fully explored. Jamaican tradition comes head to head with the cosmopolitan metropolis, the clash of young and old, toxic black masculinity, racism, colourism, sibling rivalry, the strain of interracial marriage … and that’s just scratching the surface.

Director Roy Alexander Wise has assembled a fine cast who explode on to the stage with energy and flair. Stealing the show is Cecilia Noble as Aunt Maggie. There can’t be a more hilarious performance on the London stage right now.

From her formidable physical presence to her incredible one liners she is a mass of contradiction and piety. It’s a powerhouse performance that has the audience convulsing with laughter. For better or worse we all know an Aunt Maggie.

Franc Ashman as daughter Lorraine gives a powerful portrayal as the dutiful daughter, grieving, struggling and exhausted by Nine Night. Oliver Alvin-Wilson is all brooding masculinity and his strained marriage to Sophie (Hattie Ladbury) is worthy of another play in itself encompassing as it does racism, interracial marriage and fear of fatherhood. This is a fascinating relationship we unfortunately don’t get to explore.

Nine Night is a colourful celebration of a life lived. When compared to our own traditional attitudes and approach to death this is one big riotous, complicated and messy party with lots of tears but even more laughter. 

Rating: 4/5

Nine Night is at The Dorfman, National Theatre until 26 May.

Words: Matthew Hyde