Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London (*****)
Sometimes, a play just kicks you in the stomach. As the audience rose as one at the end of Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone, no one can have been in any doubt that they had just witnessed something very special.
Paul Miller’s re-energised Orange Tree Theatre continues to set new bench marks.
Sam Walters, his predecessor, was certainly no slouch when it came to new plays. But Miller’s choices thus far – and judging by Urch’s The Rolling Stone – is of a wholly different hue.
Urch’s second full length play (his first, Land of our fathers, was about Welsh coal miners under duress), The Rolling Stone won the Bruntwood new play award last year. Based on an actual event (the murder of Ugandan gay activist, David Kato), its impact comes not only from its subject but the style Urch adopts for his fictional account (personal, domestic), Ellen McDougall’s wonderful, under-stated production and a terrific cast – as eloquent in their gospel singing as in their acting.
To Urch’s abiding credit, he approaches his subject without patronising the society in which it is set. Uganda’s horrifying intolerance, Urch shows and McDougall encourages in the singing, is buttressed by profound Christian faith.
The Rolling Stone’s focus rests on just one family, but as a microcosm for the larger society (and not unlike Land of our Fathers) is a study in the ties that bind. Love, religion, loyalty, financial pressure, community – all come under scrutiny and are brought to breaking point as Fiston Barek’s model of innocence, Dembe, falls for Northern Irish-Ugandan, Sam in an atmosphere driven by public witch-hunt (carried out in the local press) and the appointment of Dembe’s brother, Joe, as the local pastor.
Recalling James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner with its matriarchal domination in the shape of Jo Martin’s Mama, Urch builds the drama to an almost unbearable climax adding two remarkable further portraits; Dembe’s sister, Wummie, scorchingly played by Faith Omole and Faith Alabi’s mute Naome – a young woman broken by other social sexual taboos whose scream of pain when Dembe denies his sexuality pierces the soul.
It’s hard to imagine a more imaginative or searing advocate for LGBT rights. Quite, quite unforgettable.
The Rolling Stone is at the Orange Tree to Feb 20, 2016
Review first published for Reviewsgate, Jan 2016