Chichester Festival Theatre’s premiere of Andrea Levy’s moving saga, The Long Song, doesn’t hit a wrong note both as a telling reminder of this country’s involvement in the slave trade and timely contribution to Black History Month.
It opened last night, receiving a well-deserved ovation and critical acclaim, a beautifully told story that was both harrowing yet unexpectedly uplifting.
Protesters around the country can topple statues and demand retribution for a particularly dark period in our history but it is Levy’s powerful last book that brings home the reality of the era.
The Long Song is set in the 1800s when England ruled Jamaica and enslaved its people to work on the sugar plantations.
Suhayla El-Bushra’s faithful adaptation opens with a young book publisher probing the memories of an old woman who may hold the key to his mysterious past.
As a framework for the story it works well although the full circumstances as to how young Thomas Kinsman meets the feisty and opportunist Miss July are a trifle implausible.
Suffix to say that with the help of sustenance the game old girl begins to reluctantly open up about a past she’d rather forget.
Born in the fields, and a product of rape, young July’s tale is as much to do with a tumultuous time in history as it is about her life.
July is groomed and raised by ex-pat Caroline Mortimer (Olivia Poulet) who is gifted the five-year-old in pretty much the same way one admires, and receives, a puppy.
Charlotte Gwinner’s imaginative staging and Frankie Bradshaw’s simple set design delivers a moving drama with little more than a few chairs, table and a sample sugar crop but it will shock modern sensibilities with its language and dialogue.
The narrative, set during a bloody and decisive period in Jamaica’s history, doesn’t pull any punches.
During an emotional roller-coaster we see the domestic slaves lark and bicker among themselves, giving the drama much needed moments of lightness.
But the audience is stunned into silence by the slaves’ horrific treatment at the hands of their white masters.
There were audible gasps last night at the casual physical and verbal abuse, and the way July and her friends were treated as property and not people.
Holding the tale together are the spirited central performances of Llewella Gideon and Tara Tijani who are riveting as Old and young July.
They share the stage, their stories flawlessly woven together, as the tale unfolds in flashback.
The Long Song is also a thrilling ensemble piece with stand-out performances all round.
Some of the characters are barely fleshed out yet you know enough to be moved by their plight, and others are clichés but they serve to illustrate the appalling existence endured both by slaves and ‘freed’ workers.
Ben Adams is memorable in the production. He doesn’t have an especially big role as sadistic plantation owner Charles Wyndham but he duplicates his brutality to chilling effect by also playing the violent overseer Tam Dewer.
In contrast, following on from a bloody uprising, Leonard Buckley’s handsome and considerate replacement overseer, Robert Goodwin, initially wins hearts by introducing himself as a boss for a new era.
But theatre-goers were aghast at Goodwin’s transformation and behaviour, exposing the hypocrisy of the ruling classes who paid lip service to the slaves’ emancipation.
Trevor Laird gives quiet dignity to Mortimer’s manservant, Godfrey, and there are fine performances from, among others, Cecilia Appiah as snooty rival maid, Miss Clara, and Pérola Congo as the surly and conniving kitchen slave, Molly.
Joyous, uplifting and unforgettable, The Long Song runs at the Festival Theatre until October 23. For a full picture gallery go to Stage Review’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/StageReviewUK
The Long Song
The Long Song
Chichester Festival Theatre’s stage premiere of Andrea Levy’s moving saga, The Long Song, doesn’t hit a wrong note both as a telling reminder of this country’s involvement in the slave trade and timely contribution to Black History Month.