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Red Velvet (Susan Elkin reviews)

Red Velvet
By Lolita Chakrabarti
society/company: Guildhall School of Music and Dram
performance date: 15 Oct 2019
venue: Guildhall School of Music and Drama – Milton Court Theatre EC2Y 8DT

© Guildhall School / Mihaela Bodlovic 2019

Lolita Chakrabarti’s heart hitting debut play is extraordinarily good and although I’d heard and read a great deal about it I had never seen in so I was very keen to see one of the first productions by a non-pro (soon-to-be-pro in this instance) company. And it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The first play staged at Tricycle Theatre (now The Kiln) by Indhu Rubasingham when she took over as artistic director in 2012, Red Velvet tells the story of free-born black American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). He played major Shakespeare roles across Europe to great acclaim, having crossed the Atlantic during the Civil War but his reception in Britain was mixed. Until the arrival of this play, which won several awards and transferred to the West End, he was a largely forgotten footnote in theatrical history.

Here it’s in the very competent hands of a company of nine third-year Guildhall students directed by Wyn Jones. The stage – swagged in red velvet curtains with a clear demarcation between backstage, on stage and other places in which actors meet – forms a big playing space with the Milton Court Studio configured in an oblique proscenium so that it feels totally in period. Most of the action takes place at Covent Garden, then known as Theatre Royal, with some earlier and later scenes in a theatre in Poland.

Daniel Adeosun as Ira is definitely one to watch. He strides about with dignity, warmth, charisma and articulate intelligence – a better actor, of course, than anyone else in the company Ira is brought into as Othello in 1833 because Edmund Kean is ill. Ira wants to act naturalisitically. The others are hilariously ham and stylised. And most of them resent his colour with bitter, open loathing especially when he wants to touch Desdemona (Sophie Doyle as Ellen – good) on stage. “It’s called acting” he snaps crossly at one point when he’s criticised. Adeosun is one of those actors who lights up the stage and that’s very exciting. It may be an obvious point, but I hope he gets the opportunity to play Othello for real before too long as well as lots of other parts.

The whole company is strong and they work very smoothly together. Martyn Hodge is terrific, for example, as the fraught French producer, Pierre and there’s a delicious performance from David Buttle as the sneering, disdainful, outrageous Bernard Warde.

Lottie Fraser is convincing as Betty Lovell, another actor in the company too trying to be accommodating and swept away by the exotic glamour of working with a black man. I wish though, that she hadn’t also been expected to double as Ira’s wife Margaret. The change of accent wasn’t enough to differentiate the two roles.

The other thing which bothered me slightly was the music we were played as we settled in our seats – rather lovely Mikado arrangements although Aldridge died in 1867 and the Mikado didn’t premiere until 1885. There’s a reference in the play too to anti slavery demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, which suddenly seems very topical, except that we’re in 1833 and Trafalgar Square didn’t open until 1844. These are tiny gripes but they grate once you’ve noticed them.

Generally, though, this is a fine production of an outstanding play and I look forward to seeing a lot more of these promising young actors.

© Guildhall School / Mihaela Bodlovic 2019


First published by Sardines:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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