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Saturday, 16 October 2010

Theatre - Lower Ninth - Donmar at Trafalgar Studios

Star rating – 7/10

It is great to see successful theatres like the Donmar doing their bit to encourage new directors as they are doing with this series of plays in the small Trafalgar Studios on Whitehall And to be honest it is much more enjoyable to watch than some of their previous forays out of Covent Garden when their aim was somewhat higher. I recall, for example, with some pain it has to be said, seeing Dame Judi Dench in Madame de Sade last year in the West End, which was a travesty of a play despite its stellar cast.

The young director in question here is Charlotte Westenra, tackling a play written by Beau Willimon whose setting is a rooftop in New Orleans surrounded by the flood waters after Hurricane Katrina. The drama is basically a two hander between two men who are stranded on the roof without much at all in the way of basic supplies as the toxic flood waters rise. They have the body of a friend of theirs, Lowboy, on the roof for company.

Both the main actors are excellent – with demanding, almost unbroken dialogue for the whole of the piece. Anthony Welsh plays E-Z, whose full name is the rather more biblical Ezekiel, the young man whose mother has died some time previously, and whose partner Malcolm, came back to help care for her and her son. Welsh is as impressive here as he was in the excellent ‘Sucker Punch’ at the Royal Court this summer – his youthful anger, fear and vitality shining through the impossible situation he is in. Ray Fearon plays Malcolm, the former deserter of his partner, who came back after finding God, and whose bible is the cause of much friction between the two men on the rooftop. Fearon gives another powerful and convincing performance – as indeed he did as Walter in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ at the Royal Exchange in January.

The relationship between Malcolm and E-Z is very touching, going from comedy with a tense game of 20 questions, to anger, and finally loving support and self sacrifice. And I am not giving too much away to say that Lowboy himself rises from the dead to add to the dramatic tension, as the actor’s name is on all the posters anyway. The small space is perfectly suited to the forced intimacy of the watery roof top prison.

My problem with the play is that, save a joke about George W Bush aside, it does not go anywhere near the politics of the situation the men find themselves in. It does not even attempt to tackle why they are there, and what has happened to their city. This is for me a real missed opportunity. Having said that however, it is a really enjoyable and thoughtful play, which is extremely powerfully acted, and a refreshing 90 minutes long. So full marks to the Donmar – a great experiment which other theatres should follow.

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