“I brought you into this world, I will take you out!”
It’s no plot spoiler to reveal that Motown legend Marvin Gaye died at the hands of his father. He was shot through the heart after suffering a lifetime of abuse at the hands of a man who preached salvation but delivered thrashings and beatings to his young son.
Soul, Roy Williams’ searing new play about Gaye and his troubled, messy, relationship with his family, opened last night at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre, a co-production between the venue and Hackney Empire.
As an exploration of the often tangled and uneasy bond between fathers and sons, even celebrated ones, it is revelatory and uncompromising. But fans of the singer/ songwriter will be left bitterly disappointed.
Soul feels, and is, incomplete. It’s taken Williams years to pull the story together and, because of lack of official approvals, he has had to narrow the story down to the opening and closing chapters of the star’s life.
That means that huge, and incredibly important, chunks of Gaye’s life are missing. His entire working relationship with Motown, his greatest hits, his wives (there were two) and kids, and even a brother – are only mentioned in passing.
This was never meant to be a musical but it is tragic that – in a play about a music icon – we never hear more than a few bars from a couple of songs.
Religion played an enormous part in the Gay family life (Marvin added an ‘e’ to his surname) and it forms the blueprint for James Dacre’s pacy, spiritual, production.
Soul opens with high drama. The splendid Royal & Derngate Community Choir are singing as we hear the final angry showdown between father and son. There’s a gunshot, then another and Marvin Snr staggers to the front of stage, a smoking gun in his hand.
The play is told in flashback by Gaye’s sisters, Jeanne and Zeola, who bicker about who remembers and who embellishes the truth, who was to blame, and who was right.
I don’t know how accurately Roy Williams sticks to the facts but I learned a lot about Marvin Gay Snr which I hadn’t known before. It was a bit of an eye-opener, to be sure.
Suffice to say that Leo Wringer’s multi-layered performance is remarkable. You don’t want to like the man – he isn’t a very likeable character – but you can’t help having a modicum of sympathy.
He’s proud, traditional, and rules his family with a rod of iron, delivering beatings if any of the four kids step out of line. But he’s a flawed preacher who drinks too much and can’t keep away from the young lovelies in his congregation
Keenan Munn Francis, who has appeared in Thriller Live and The Scottsboro Boys, delivers a heart-rending performance as young Marvin, an angry, defiant young teen who wants his father’s love and respect but isn’t prepared to pay the price.
For the first 30 minutes of this two-hour show we watch an ongoing battle between father and son with Marvin’s mother, Alberta, (Adjoa Andoh) caught in the middle. She loves her husband, whatever his faults, but loves the young boy too.
Then, whoosh. Gaye, now played with real soul by Nathan Ives-Moiba, is suddenly all grown up and famous, touring the country, making hit records, and paying the bills for his entire family. Yet, for all the family’s elevation in life, the fierce, angry confrontations continue.
The singer tries to make out with singer Tammy Terrell (Abiona Omonua), starts drinking heavily and puts an awful lot of coke up his nose. Worse, he’s become paranoid and depressed. Marvin is falling apart despite becoming famous.
The performances are uniformly excellent, and the addition of the choir is a real treat, but there’s a lot of Soul that hasn’t made it to the stage and that is a real disappointment. It’s billed as the untold story but I’m guessing that there’s nothing new here – and a lot missed out – that fans don’t already know.
Soul runs on the Royal stage until June 11 and plays at the Hackney Empire from June 15-July 3.
Soul, Roy Williams’ searing look at the life and death of music legend Marvin Gaye, takes an emotional road-trip through the messy chords of family life but feels incomplete.