“Five kids and not one of them gotta daddy”
In The Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks was originally scheduled to be the Sunday/Monday play at the Finborough but when Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy was postponed due to the indisposition of one of its actors, In The Blood was promoted to a full run. Parks is a prolific American playwright, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer, but this marks the European premiere of this play, one of two she has written, inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The story centres on Hester La Negrita, an illiterate mother of five children from different fathers, who lives under a bridge in a rough New York neighbourhood. Her oldest son is teaching her to read and write but she’s struggling even with the letter A and she constantly dreams of getting the ‘leg-up’ she needs to escape her situation. However, we meet a parade of adults in her life who hold her back, her best friend, a social worker, a doctor, a minister and her first lover who all could help her in their own way but who end up just using and exploiting Hester, mainly though her sexuality, leading to tragic conclusions.
Structurally, I found it interesting as there is a mix of the gritty realism of life on the street leavened by the comic possibilities with 5 small children, counterpointed by a series of revelations or confessions from the adult characters proving just how hypocritical the attitudes of the community at large really are. These work especially well in the intimate space of the Finborough, with the unflinching brutal honesty of Parks’ writing impossible to escape.
Natasha Bain does well as Hester, a difficult character to like as she is so naive and trusting in the face of repeated disillusionments but Bain imbues her with a quiet dignity and an undoubted sense that no matter how trying they can sometimes be, she really does love her children. From what I remember of Hawthorne’s book though, I struggled to see too many parallels to Hester Prynne, not something that bothered me greatly but people who book on the strength of the Scarlet Letter connection might be disappointed.
Hester aside, the rest of the cast double up as one of her kids and one of her tormentors to largely very great effect. Vinta Morgan deserves kudos for climbing into an adult sized babygrow, Frances Ashman was particularly impressive as tomboyish Bully and the manipulative Welfare but the whole ensemble should be praised for their versatility and the smoothness of their transitions between the characters.
Joe Schermoly’s design is bleakly simplistic but carefully enhanced by Ben Blaber’s lighting, which is most effective during the ‘confessions’. Altogether, it is a very well-performed, thought-provoking piece of work forcing us to look at how we treat the homeless within society: just don’t go expecting to see a version of The Scarlet Letter.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval, possibly subject to change as this was the final preview)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 4th September
Note: some smoking in second act. The Finborough pub downstairs is closed for renovations so take your own drinks as it does get hot in there.
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews