Dawn Walton’s revival of Don Evans’ comedy, written in the early 1980s and set in the 1970s, revels in the details of the period. The set design is suitably fussy and the characters all wear bell bottoms and other era-appropriate clothing, to the point where the whole production feels perilously close to fancy dress. The oversized performances from the cast ramp up this sense of the unreal and the whole thing is directed like a heightened version of The Cosby Show, complete with an ‘ON AIR’ sign and acknowledgement of the audience at the start. This show-within-a-show device is interesting but only very gently explored; yet despite this cautious framing, the material – and the pace at which it is staged – makes for a bracing experience.
The Harrisons are a middle-class black family living in a predominantly white suburb. For housewife Myra (Jocelyn Jee Esien), doing well means being a success in white society. Their aspirational existence is disrupted by the arrival of Avery’s niece Beverley (Rebecca Scroggs), who has inherited her father’s nightclub. She is entrusted into the care of his business partner Caleb (Clifford Samuel), whose freewheeling, womanising lifestyle represents everything the respectable Harrisons have moved away from. Their teenage son Felix (Isaac Ssedbandeke) is also, unbeknownst it to them, rebelling against his safe suburban existence by conducting a relationship with the streetwise L’il Bits.
While the family dynamics will be recognisable from any sitcom, the sexual politics of the piece do show their age. The first half revolves around an errant copy of the period-defining The Joy of Sex, which sparks a quiet revolution in marital relations between Avery and Myra, and in all the relationships, the women keep men in check with their sexual wiles. There are some smart lines which still resound though, such as L’il Bits railing against the Harrisons as “bourgie niggas”:”I said I didn’t like being with ’em. I ain’t say I didn’t want to be one myself.”
The energetic performances of the company help cut through the bagginess of the first half. But there’s a confused tone to both play and production, something which is encapsulated by the design, the stage divided into a bedroom and a living room, making it harder for the audience to appreciate the quieter exchanges. Yet despite this surface messiness, there’s much here that works well. The physical comedy is interspersed with individual monologues addressed to the audience, which gives the cast a chance to shine light on their individual characters’ deeper motivations. Throughout, Esien is a delight as the housewife who refuses to have her frequent malapropisms corrected by her son; Scroggs also puts in a likeable performance as the naive country girl who refuses to adopt any affectations, street or otherwise.
The cast are superb at dealing with sudden fluctuations in tone and Walton is able to bring the second half to a convincing and heartfelt resolution. Though the play sometimes creaks it still has some interesting things to say and a bit more faith in its broader points about aspiration and class could have made for a revival that felt more substantial.