Lower Ninth is the first play in a new season of plays that Michael Grandage, the recently announced now outgoing head honcho at the Donmar Warehouse, has put together to showcase the work of its Resident Assistant Directors in a 12 week residency of three plays at the 100-seater Trafalgar Studios 2 basement theatre. Grandage has done wonders in working with the Donmar brand: before this, we had the West End season at the Wyndhams with Ivanov, Twelfth Night, Madame de Sade and Hamlet allowing for much bigger audiences to witness Donmar productions and various in-house shows have been exported to other countries meaning that whoever takes over has quite the act to follow.
The first play in this season though is Charlotte Westenra’s take on Lower Ninth by American Beau Willimon, a tale of two men trapped on a rooftop with the body of a friend and waiting for rescue after some catastrophic unspecified event. But as the title refers to a less-than-salubrious neighbourhood of New Orleans, I think it is safe to infer the play is set just after Hurricane Katrina wound its destructive way through that part of the world in 2005.
It is at its best when it is the story of the relationship between the two men and the ways in which they kill time, there is though an amusing take on the story of Noah’s Ark with a hysterical rationalisation of how there’s both black and white people in the world if we’re all descended from Adam which one could easily believe is told by many an old-school evangelist. But Willimon is determined to shoehorn in a whole raft of issues despite a running time of just over an hour. There’s pointed digs at the George W Bush administration’s slow response, he also touches on the brutal reality of gang life, drug running and the important role of father figures in young Black America, but fails to say anything of real value about these things. And given the realism of this play, it stretches credulity to think that the absence of Dubya would have been noticeable to them, never mind in their thoughts whilst slowly dehydrating on a roof.
Anthony Welsh as E-Z and Ray Fearon as the older Malcom (I’ve used the programme spelling) are mesmerising. Their relationship percolates and develops beautifully as they try to kill time in their endless wait and struggle to keep their spirits up and the desperation out of their eyes and we discover the true nature of the connection between these two characters. They each bring their own strengths, Fearon’s warm-eyed paternalism almost hiding the dark violent past of his character and Welsh’s edgy but impassioned energy of a teenager desperate to be a man particularly impressing and as things get worse, the sacrifice and strength in adversity that emerges is just beautiful to watch. And there’s also a demonstration of amazing endurance (you will see what I mean) from Richie Campbell as Lowboy.
Westenra’s direction is nicely unobtrusive, teasing great performances from her actors and allowing for the effective passage of time as the hours pass by. But she does need to get a stronger grip on the limitations of the space before opening night: one particular moment which should be extremely powerful was ruined for me as I was convinced that an actor was going to fall onto me and my predicament made people around me and across from me giggle somewhat inappropriately (although my facial expressions did not help as I was told in the bar afterwards!) And more care needs to be taken to hide the stagehands controlling the lights from the sides, it ruins the illusion somewhat to see exactly how they made the theatre so dark.
Ben Stones’ design is simple but starkly effective: one battered, shingle-covered rooftop with hints of the detritus following such a calamity like the corner of a submerged car just poking up off to one side and Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting subtly suggests the passage of time and the star-lit night-time sequence was beautifully atmospheric. So an affecting little of theatre that does not outstay its welcome and despite the limitations of the writing nevertheless manages to pack quite a punch due to the quality of the production and the acting.