Arriving at the Trafalgar Studios after a wave of critical acclaim at its National Theatre run earlier this year, Nine Night already bears the acclaim and intense scrutiny that comes with being the first ever West End play written by a black woman. Fortunately, it is more than well-equipped to handle the unfair burden that comes with blazing a trail – Natasha Gordon’s remarkably accomplished debut play is a muscular dissection of grief and adherence to tradition.
The title refers to the Jamaican funeral custom of nine nights of mourning, with the family’s matriarch Gloria’s offstage death occurring in the opening scenes of the play. Her death and the pressure-cooker environment created by the extended mourning period exposes the cracks in a British-Jamaican family. It’s a time-honoured framework for drama that is given new life by the very fact that it’s putting front and centre an under-represented section of the British community and takes on a particular resonance in the shadow of the Windrush scandal from earlier this year.
Gordon herself steps into the role of Lorraine, taking over from Franc Ashman for the West End run, and she paints a deeply humane portrait of the daughter who gave up everything to care for mother. Coming in at a lean 100 minutes, Lorraine initially serves as the play’s quiet centre, slowly eroding to the effects of grief over the nine nights.
Director Roy Alexander Weise has assembled a cast who tear into the material with gusto and there is no weak link in the cast, as each get the chance to showcase a different facet of dual national identities. Particular praise must go to Cecilia Noble who plays the majestic Auntie Maggie, and knocks every one-liner out of the park, frequently stopping the show. It’s a titanic performance that had me at first wondering if it was merely a (brilliantly executed) comic relief turn, but in a masterstroke of Gordon’s calibrated writing, Maggie’s presence ensures that a left turn in the final moments of the play feels completely earned and impactful.
A shrewdly-observed portrait of grief and nationality that doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers. Highly recommended.