Soul – the untold story of Marvin Gaye by Roy Williams - review
Royal Derngate

Published: Thursday, May 26, 2016 6:07 PM | Review by: Mike Scott-Harding | Afridiziak Star Rating:
Soul - Nathan Ives-Moiba (Marvin) - credit Robert Day Soul - Nathan Ives-Moiba (Marvin) - credit Robert Day

Adjoa Andoh is simply amazing as ‘Alberta Gay’. She seamlessly transitions through young woman, fiercely protective mother, supportive partner, cuckolded wife, through to older ‘war-ravaged’ matriarch with grace and power.

In reviewing this production, it’s important to acknowledge what it is not, as much as what it actually is.


It is neither a musical, nor is it simply musical bio-theatre. Moreover, we are not simply gathered together to get through a conventional jukebox-like ‘celebration of Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits’.


No - what’s been created here is more challenging, ambitious, and – arguably – more interesting. “Soul” is the story of a modern music legend - and ‘world figure’ - reclaimed, distilled, deconstructed, demythologized, and given back to ‘us’ as (ultimately) a deeply personal family tragedy. As ‘Shakespearean’ as the story is, it cried out to be written in this most intelligent of forms and, for that, we have Roy Williams to thank.


The piece starts with a series of fast-moving projected images of Marvin’s life, and culminates in two gunshots. A gospel choir sings its lament for a fallen hero, before Marvin’s two sisters start a prepared eulogy for their departed brother; so far, so formulaic.


But then, the two sisters start to bicker mid-eulogy, and things get interesting.

They decide that – if they are to tell their story of brother Marvin – then they must go back to the beginning, and tell their own truth. It’s almost as if they’re telling us – the audience -: ‘You think you know `Marvin? Think again”.


Thereafter, we are shown a tale, as much about the hopes, dreams, and humble aspirations of urban-dwelling African-Americans in the mid 20th century, as anything else. For those who do not know the story of Marvin Gay(e) before he became famous, I’m sure it’s as familiar to many of African-American or African-Caribbean heritage]as it is specific to him.


His father (‘Marvin Gay Sr.) was a lying, cheating, hypocritical womaniser, a failed preacher, a bully - and a not-so-secret cross-dresser.


This led to many conflicts, not least with his son - Marvin Junior - with whom he had a ‘love-hate’ relationship - that is, they both loved to hate each other.


The family was held together by Alberta Gay who was, not only the saving grace in Marvin Senior’s life, but the true love of Marvin Junior’s. In fact, we are shown that the two Marvins’ hatred for each other was – in many ways – fuelled by competition for Alberta (a true Oedipal complex).


As Marvin Junior outgrows the shackles and strict abuses of his father - both verbal and physical - the most obvious creative route would be to portray him as the ‘saintly (financial) saviour of the family’ that he ostensibly was. Instead, as seen through the eyes of his two sisters, we see how Marvin Junior (not so quietly) usurps his father, and becomes its de facto king / monster.


Substance addiction, artistic atrophy, and financial ruin all add to his inner-demons, as he uses his almost child-like charm to first flirt with, and then hurt, all around him. By the time he hears that his beloved mother is gravelly ill, he selfishly makes plans to ‘leave’ before her whilst - at the same time - plotting the ultimate revenge on his father. ‘Trouble Man’, indeed(!)


In true ensemble style, the acting cast is superb.


Adjoa Andoh is simply amazing as ‘Alberta Gay’. She seamlessly transitions through young woman, fiercely protective mother, supportive partner, cuckolded wife, through to older ‘war-ravaged’ matriarch with grace and power.


Petra Letang (‘Jeanne Gaye’) and Mimi Ndiweni (‘Zeola Gaye’) are excellent as the two sisters; both actors imbuing the siblings with emotional responses appropriate to their brother’s mistreatment of them. Leo Wringer (‘Marvin Gay Senior’), and Abiona Omunua (‘Tammi Terrell/’Lea’) are also superb.


Special consideration should be given to the ‘two Marvins’; Kennan Munn-Francis (‘Young Marvin’) and Nathan Ives-Moiba (‘Marvin Gaye’) work together – sometimes literally - to create a character both ‘wise beyond his years’ and – at the same time – bound by emotional immaturity. The two actors sing capably but not outstandingly and, although Ives-Moiba sometimes seems a little ‘whiny’ in his enactment of the older version, perhaps this is the point. Having said that, it is what the two actors represent that’s of most importance and – in this regard – their combined performances work well to give us a fresh understanding of Marvin Gaye.


The set appears quite minimal in the first half but, by the second act, the set-design comes into its own - its split-level performance space, image-projection, set-furnishings, and hydraulic staging adding appropriate depth and character.


Soul - Adjoa Andoh (Alberta) and Leo Wringer (Marvin Sr) credit Robert Day Soul - Adjoa Andoh (Alberta) and Leo Wringer (Marvin Sr) credit Robert Day

The writing, acting, singing, staging, and lighting all work together to create a powerful piece"

The excellent Joseph Roberts (musical irector) makes sure to essay Marvin’s best-known songs, whilst adding appropriately moving additional material. The choir’s involvement seemed a little too subtle (quiet) at times but, if the overall effect of the music is to draw us into the narrative, it works well. If anything, we could have done with more music, especially in the 2nd act (maybe there were certain music rights-issues to consider, or perhaps it was simply a matter of time). James Dacre (‘Director’), Gordon Banks (‘Original Music’), and Jon Bauser (‘Design’) also deserve credit for their excellent work.


The writing, acting, singing, staging, and lighting all work together to create a powerful piece, and more than make up for what seems like a slow first act. Indeed, by the end – as the sisters make way for the projected image and audio of Marvin’s Sr. and Jr. sitting on a porch together – the cumulative effect leaves us reeling, and we are left in no doubt that the ‘Marvin as cultural icon’ narrative – however important – was just one small ingredient in this family’s connection. If anything, his sisters seem to point to Marvin Gaye’s huge popularity and status as an unwanted interruption to their family’s journey; a ‘poisoned chalice’ from which they all were forced to drink.


In these times when ‘celebrities’ are, at once, deified, and yet stripped of their ‘human-ness’ – by both media and public alike – this play is vitally important.


Roy Williams – the author of this play – is a football fan; as such, he will be familiar with the term “a game of two halves”. At times, that’s what this play felt like – both literally and stylistically. Thank goodness, then, that – by the end – the correct result was reached.


Info: Soul is at Hackney Empire from 15 June to 3 July 2016 | See listing | Soul is at Royal Derngate until 11 June 2016 | Book tickets | Interview with Adjoa Andoh




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