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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Pit       Spring 2001

Nick Stafford's new play for the RSC works very hard to say very little about a very big subject, very clumsily.

His heart is in the right place, but uncertainties of tone and point-of-view, and difficulties with simple story-telling, keep the play from achieving its ambitions.

The members of a prosperous and philanthropic English family are challenged by their adopted black daughter with her discovery that the family fortune was built, 200 years ago, on the slave trade.

Flashbacks show us that this is true, but that there are indeed darker secrets in the family's history, just as there are moments of courage in the face of cultural and personal racial prejudices.

It is that gap - the fact that we know both worse and better things about the family than its modern members - that muddies the daughter's (and the play's) claim that the present owes some acknowledgement of, and reparation for, the sins of the past.

Meanwhile, the play's structure keeps it from cohering for too much of its brief length. In the jumble of present scenes and flashbacks (to 200 and 100 years ago), it takes too long to sort out the story lines. We don't even learn the identity of the questioning black woman until midway through the play, or her motivations and argument until near the very end.

Moving the family into the South African diamond trade 100 years ago is both a too-easy emotional button-pushing and a red herring, while scenes in the nineteenth-century flashback in which a couple use the vocabulary of diamond-cutting as a code for their tentative reaching-out to each other are a bit too self-satisfied in their cleverness to have their full effect.

There are strong performances throughout, though they come in flashes rather than sustained characterisations. In the present, Karen Bryson as the daughter is matched in energy and good will by Susan Engel and Simon Coates as her adoptive mother and brother.

John McEnery makes the family founder more complex than a merely opportunistic villain, while Tom Smith and Niamh Linehan invest the nineteenth-century couple with some emotional truth.

There may well be a play to be written about the fact that almost any family has dark secrets in its past, or about what the statute of limitations is on past crimes, or on how many good works it takes to balance out the moral record.

But this play tries to take them all on, and is not at all clear what it thinks about any of the issues.

Nick Stafford is the author of Battle Royal, last year's NT play about George IV and his queen, which managed to make two of the most grotesque figures in British history seem dull. Here he has taken a complicated subject and only made it more confusing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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