The American civil rights movement of the 1960s is a fertile moment in history for stories of courage against adversity.
Paul Minx has decided to concentrate his play, The Long Road South, which opened on Friday at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre, on the battle of a single black couple in trying to extricate themselves from the dysfunctional and needy white Indiana family that employ them so they can travel to Alabama for the protests.
There are a lot of good intentions in the tale – and some superb performances by the five-strong cast – but it is ultimately let down by the writing which, at times, feels like Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill with political aspirations.
Imogen Stubbs as alcoholic mother, Carol Ann Price, is straight out of the Deep South book of stereotypes. Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois to a tee. Disillusioned with her life and married to a bullying, middle management, redneck, she spends her days at the bottom of a rum bottle, undressed in a barely-on slip and housecoat with her slapped-on makeup smudged down her face.
Carol Ann is a study in boredom and lost opportunities. Her only ambition in life seemed to be to employ coloured staff to wait on her. She may live in the American mid-west but her attitudes, while superficially liberal, are entrenched in the rebel south.
This is America on the cusp. We first meet the Prices through their precocious 15-year-old daughter, the clinging Ivy, who is lounging in the sun trying to learn bible quotations for a contest.
The family’s gardener/ butler and general dogsbody, Andre, has a chequered past that resulted in him being estranged from his own daughter. He has, within the remit of his job as staff, lavished his paternal feelings on the teenager, acting as mentor in place of the girl’s incapable mother and at-work father.
But Ivy mistakes caring for sexual interest and is infatuated, inventing wild stories in a bid to stop Andre leaving the family with his partner, the educated maid-cum-aspiring writer, Grace, to go “down south.”
In fact the only thing stopping the couple leaving is a lack of cash and Grace berates Andre for not tackling Mr P more emphatically to redeem their back pay which he is refusing to hand over.
The play starts to flag at the midway point in its 90-minute length with the staff, mother and daughter almost exhausted by the insults, threats and barbs they’ve hurled at each other.
But the tension really picks up with the arrival home of the head of the family – its hunter-gatherer, Jake (though I’d have said more a Bill or Bert) – a modern day Neanderthal who barbecues meat most nights, drinks beer from the bottle, and expects his women to be waiting on him.
In reality the marriage is dead. Michael Brandon’s beautifully observed Jake is bitter man with a guilty secret. He’s also reluctant to pay his dues. In one powerfully acted and intense scene he arrogantly flicks coins at Andre and Grace as the pair plead for wages.
The Long Road South points us in the direction of the civil rights movement without ever really pressing its case. Minx’s decision to concentrate on one family could have been better if it had fully explored its subject.
Brandon and Stubbs are immensely watchable, delivering quality performances as a pair disappointed with their life’s choices and angry that freedom and opportunity is being offered to others while their own lives are in freefall.
Krissi Bohn, as Grace, gives us a woman playing against type. Instead of a subservient, unseen and ill-equipped black maid, she is feisty and fearless and comes with a complete back-story and a template for the future empowerment of black women in America.
There’s a quiet dignity to Cornelius Macarthy’s Andre. Yes, he’s a character we know well, flawed, violent and unpredictable when drunk, but there’s an honesty to him that is tested by the antics of the needy Ivy (an engaging and believable performance by Lydea Perkins).
Director Sarah Berger gets top performances from her cast but is let down by writing that concentrates more on the failings of one family rather than the rights of a nation’s people.
The Long Road South, which plays at The King’s Head Theatre until January 30, makes some inroads into America’s troubled history but occasionally takes the wrong route to its destination.
The Long Road South
The Long Road South makes some inroads into America’s troubled history but occasionally takes the wrong route to its destination.