RADA Festival: August Town by Claire Prempeh

To a modern viewer spoilt by productions seemingly intent on diminishing any need for the audience to suspend disbelief, Claire Prempeh’s new play ‘August Town’ might have first appeared as some sort of special Caribbean brew for disaster. However, although interwoven with spirits and demons, exorcisms and magic,  director Daniel Raggett’s production developed into a poignant and haunting exploration of lust, love and loyalties.

The drama crept from the darkness of the theatre, with the cast raising their voices in a cappella to set the scene in contemporary urban Jamaica. The tale centred around a British couple,  Lloyd and Marcia, characters initially eclipsed by Diveen Henry’s spectacular interpretation of the latter’s aunt, Tameka. Her command of Prempeh’s witty and very dry humour however did not just set the scene for a comedy but also for an  uneasy household drama.

Having recently lost her husband in a car crash, Aunt Tameka turns with vengeance against her now disabled son. Samson Kayo plays the part with touching frailty and desperation, as a young man trapped in a body refusing to function properly. This continuing tale is interwoven with the main narrative though the central strain focuses upon the seduction of Michael Quartey’s Lloyd by the flamboyant spirit Tyri played by Syrus Lowe. In a culture where homosexuality remains illegal, Lloyd is caught by double act Erroyl and Bigbee, presented with refreshing report and originality by Gershwyn Eustache Jnr and Peri Olufunwa. Less refreshing was Lowe’s Tyri, played with stereotypical femininity and a comic timing that seemed too contrived. However as a character of questionably reality, the surrealism was entirely excusable.

Initially the performance seemed to be seeking to make Lloyd the tragic hero, flawed with some kind of hamartia like Shakespeare’s Othello: a man who makes mistakes which can only be blamed on the tragic social circumstances, by the world cruelly conspiring against him. The severity of that mistake however dismissed firmly any notion of this intention, as was revealed in perhaps the most disturbing and shocking scene. Supremely convincing with an unmatched zeal and energy, Duane Palmer’s dark suited Pastor Royston turned to the audience as if to address them in sermon. It was then, as the pastor talked of cleansing the soul of the supposedly corrupted Marcia, that it dawned upon the audience. Virginia Brito’s numb and broken Marcia, raped to cure her of the witchcraft her own husband had accused her of. Trapped by the expectations of their family and culture, Lloyd, in hiding his sexuality was presented as unforgivably putting someone who loved him in the firing line.

As the Gay Marriage Act passes through the House of Lords, this exploration is fresh and relevant, an older issue addressed from a slightly unusual angle. RADA has sought here to comment, to force thought and debate rather than to compromise. With a wonderfully strong cast all of whom display flashes of brilliance, and a script oozing with potential, ‘August Town,’ although not entirely seamless, was a thought provoking and moving drama which left the audience surprisingly effected with its intensity.