There’s little to evoke more anxiety and dread than the phrase ‘Traditional Family Christmas’. Three words that used individually may suggest happiness, take on a whole new meaning with the memories that come when strung together. Somehow ‘Traditional’ becomes ‘Critical and Judgmental’, ‘Family’ is ‘Insular and Unwelcoming’ and ‘Christmas’, a layer of superiority where religious undertones create a false sense of self-implied importance. So I suggest that Natasha Gordon has done herself no favours with the title of Nine Night as – depending on your own heritage, you will either know all too well or else glean from Wiki – this reference to the Caribbean ‘Traditional Family…. Wake’ doesn’t set you up for what is the often hilarious, occasionally poignant and thought-provoking, but always enjoyable nature of her debut play. Cleverly showing how such differing cultures can combine and create rather than collide and crash, my suggestion for a tonally better title “Fried Chicken, A Place... and Tings” is there for the taking.
A thrill ride where you can just sit back, get swept along, and have a bloody good time doing so.
The piece centres around one of the many, mostly Jamaican, families (in all senses of literal, extended and community) that have existed in pockets of the UK since the Empire Windrush first arrived in Tilbury 70 years ago. `The timing of this production must have recognised the celebration of the anniversary in its debut performance (it is never explicitly mentioned) but of course, could not have foreseen just how major a news story it would have been – though for all the wrong reasons. If there’s a tiniest of positivities it’s that there’s never been more awareness for people to want to go and see this and as such, the short run is almost sold out already.
Starting just before the expected death of the unseen ‘elder stateswoman’, we never leave the slightly seventies feeling, over packed kitchen of the house as the naturally dramatic events of the care, the planning, the nine nights and the arguments take place out of sight. It’s a nice device – everyone knows that the real important stuff happens in the kitchen at parties – and so focusses more on the complicated emotional impact on family relationships, heightened by the expectation of traditions, rather than the events themselves.
The kitchen setting is reminiscent of a soap opera centre of community as everything, everyone, every argument, every awkward reveal rolls in and rolls out of this hub – generally while there is little more action than making soup or plucking chicken feet. It’s the dining table of Lou Beale, the barbershop of Desmond’s, even the bar in Cheers – that place where emotions are high but just a heartbeat away from the actions that cause them. And this focus makes the specifics of these traditions not something that you’ve had to experience or know of to understand the impacts they can have. I imagine the takeout that someone with a Jamaican heritage may well have more empathy on events, but no more empathy on effect.
You can take apart all the subplots going on but this is to miss the point that I believe Gordon and another first-timer, director Roy Alexander Weise want to make. Whistlestop tour through; unappreciated siblings and the jealousy and rivalry therein; heritage versus modernism or rebellion versus tradition; expectation and dissatisfaction of ambition; lifelong hidden secrets and the tension they bring by being hidden. And some larger than life characterisation to keep the pace flying – notably the teeth-kissing, husband-baiting, corpse-painting, fried-chicken-loving, new-matriarch-in-waiting Aunt Maggie (given all the scene stealing gags in a fine performance by Cecilia Noble as one of those characters we love seeing on stage, but dread seeing on a bus in South East London).
If that sounds a hell of a lot to get through in 1 hour 45 minutes – and a little pedestrian – it is, and there are probably at least a couple of stories that could be got rid of as nothing gets resolved or fully explored. It’s not meant to but it can get a bit exhausting. But by keeping the whole play less about the facts of the dramatic and more about how the characters react and cope, it mainytain a keen relevance to everyone and brings out the Soap fan in us all. My advice is not to worry about the details, but to recognise the experience – it’s all the better seen as a thrill ride where you can just sit back, get swept along, and have a bloody good time doing so.