Following its much-hyped run at The National, Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night makes history as the first play by a black British female playwright to make its West End debut, and now she also stars in it too.
Gordon’s impressive debut triumphs at shining a poignant light on a taboo subject.
A wave of nostalgia sweeps over the audience as the lights go up on the set with its patterned wallpaper, dining room chairs covered with plastic and the trolley bag at the back door, a scene all too familiar with all those of a certain generation.
They say that the kitchen is the heart of the home and it’s no different for this London-based Jamaican family, as it’s where all the action takes place.
The loss of matriarch Gloria leaves tensions running high as her extended family clash over the Nine Night wake that will inevitably follow and we quickly learn the three things Jamaicans don’t mess with are money, food and tradition.
Dutiful daughter Lorraine (played by writer Gordon) is at the heart of the play as she tries to navigate her grief and smooth over family squabbles – including those with her materialistic brother Robert (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and their older half-sister Trudy (Michelle Greenidge) in Jamaica.
The elders, Aunt Maggie (Cecilia Noble) and husband Uncle Vince (Karl Collins), drive the narrative with their fantastic rapport as scene-stealer Noble delivers her one-liners with gusto and patois-laced humour. When cremation, rather than a traditional burial is suggested for her beloved cousin Gloria, she shoots back: “We don’t cook our people!”
Elephant Man’s Pon de River signals the arrival of Trudy akin to a Jamaican hurricane entering the grieving household – complete with red hair and no filter. Greenidge has the audience in the palm of her hands throughout, but it’s during her impassioned performance as the abandoned sibling – voice quivering and tears rolling down her cheeks – that this actress really comes into her own.
The final scenes where Aunt Maggie is possessed by the spirit takes the 100-minute play down a more comedic route reminiscent of those infamous Whoopi Goldberg scenes in Ghost, but the audience don’t seem to mind the detour as by this point they’re well invested in the cultural customs and traditions.
With a rousing calypso, ska and dancehall soundtrack, Nine Night will resonate with all those who have experienced these lively, rum-fuelled wakes as Gordon’s impressive debut triumphs at shining a poignant light on a taboo subject.
Nine Night is authentic, hilarious and heart-warming, and above all, a wonderful snapshot of an age-old ritual that’s been passed down for generations.