Review of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl - Cambridge Arts Theatre, until Saturday (March 22).
12:13 20 March 2014
This classic play, first staged at the Royal Court in 1958, is a kitchen sink drama, Caribbean style. It’s the sink in the sun. Because of the intensity and the heat it is reminiscent of the work of Tennessee Williams.
Moon On A Rainbow Shawl won the Observer New Play competition of 1957. Though the programme notes say it is about Ephraim (Okezie Morro) who is determined to leave Trinidad and open up his world by coming to England, it has just as much to say about the plight of women. It’s the women who are at the sink.
And, it is so intricately written and this production is so beautifully performed that they are all lead roles. You feel you understand all of the characters. They could be in our street.
A stellar cast by the Talawa Theatre Company, in a production from the National Theatre, gives us Sophia Adams (Martina Laird) who has a charming but errant husband, Charlie. They never get to be one without the other. They have an 11-year-old daughter Esther (Tahirah Sharif, a beautifully nuanced performance) who has just won a scholarship but who still may not get to the grammar school because they can’t afford the uniform (Harold Wilson’s family had exactly the same dilemma) and a new baby son.
Sophia shares the yard with Ephraim, the girlfriend he is about to abandon, Rosa (Alisha Bailey) and across the way, floozy Mavis (Bethan Mary James) who entertains men in her rooms. They all pay rent to Old Mack who also owns the cafe where Rosa works.
The play opens with Charlie having yet another night on the tiles while a weary Sophia comes back late from work, cleans, cooks and looks after the baby. Rosa hasn’t yet told Ephraim that she is pregnant - Ephraim wants to leave her and Old Mack wants to seduce her. Burt Caesar as Mack gives a beautifully slimy performance during the attempted seduction, yet later on you see his vulnerability.
Charlie is so proud of his daughter Esther who adores him and both will be devastated if she can’t take her place at school. Meanwhile the cafe is robbed.
The second half of the play really takes off and the pace quickens. There are wonderful scenes when alley cat Mavis gets engaged to Prince (Ray Emmet Brown). Her flaunting her engagement ring is a joy to see. His character is indescribable but instantly recognisable as the strutting man who thinks he is punching above his weight. He thinks Mavis is out of his league. Good enough comic characterisation here for at least one series of a sitcom.
Martina Laird as Sophia trying to persuade Ephraim to stay with Rosa, Sophia’s devastation when her husband gets arrested for the robbery and her daughter disappears bring you so far into the world of the play that you don’t want it to end because you want to follow them through more of their lives.
This is a powerful vignette of a time and a lifestyle. It has a lot to say about the relative roles of men and women, much to say about what drives people when they are poor and is relevant now because we have to ask ourselves: if we were living somewhere where life ground us down so that it felt like it was no life, would we take our chances to find somewhere better? Especially if we had just fought in a war to help the place we were thinking of going to.
Errol John wrote a masterpiece with great characters, wonderful lines and plot to grow them all together. Arriving in London from Trinidad in 1950, he became a successful actor and playwright for stage and screen and one of the early black faces in cinema, theatre and television. This play is his truth and ours.