Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 17 March 2015

Play Mas

Orange Tree Theatre ⋄ 11th March - 11th April 2015


Neil Dowden
Credit: Robert Day

Credit: Robert Day

Mustapha Matura’s Play Mas, written in 1974,  is a fascinating piece, mixing broad humour and political satire, intimate naturalism and flights of fancy, with the Trinidad’s pre-Lenten carnival running through it like a river of anarchy. In the frenzy of masquerade anything can happen.

The play starts quietly; the opening scenes take place in a tailor’s shop in late 1950s Port of Spain. Owner Ramjohn is explaining to his apprentice Samuel how to make the perfect suit – ‘de seams is de most important part’ – while they compete over who has the best knowledge of Hollywood movies, interrupted by the demands of Ramjohn’s domineering mother Miss Gookool. But while the mood of these early scenes is almost that of a sitcom, the mood of the piece soon darkens as ethnic divisions clash with political aspirations, and death raises its ugly head under the phantasmagoric guise of carnival. The second act of the play jumps forward in time and takes place after Trinidad has gained independence from Britain in 1962. Samuel is now the new corrupt government’s commissioner of police and he has genuine power in his hands, as opposition unrest grows.

Matura brilliantly explores the ambiguities and tensions of Trinidadian cultural identity, with its mixed African and Indian heritage, against the backdrop of the country’s struggles to assert its own independent path from British imperialism and American neo-colonialism. His use of local dialect is rich and often put to good comic effect, while the scenes of the carnivalesque which punctuate the play are heightened in tone. Carnival is a period during which, for two days ordinary people shed all inhibitions and transform themselves into fantastical and mythical figures. Here this takes on a sinister quality as those who used to play with fake guns are now doing it in deadly earnest.

Paulette Randall’s production is always entertaining and does full justice to the play’s passages of absurd comedy, though it does not quite capture the quicksilver changes of tone; this is particularly true of the final scenes which could be much more chilling than it is here. Libby Watson’s splendid design incorporates film and advertising posters of the time, while the colourful, exotic costumes of the carnival are backed by Mark Jonathan’s atmospheric lighting, by turns tropical and eerie; Al Ashford’s vibrant sound effects and pulsing rhythms.

Seun Shote is a likeably clownish Samuel especially in the early scenes of frustrated boyish enthusiasm, but doesn’t really convey the dark side of his later manipulative scheming. Johann Myers is the dreamer Ramjohn who finds unexpected release but feels out of his depth under the new regime, while Melanie La Barrie makes a formidably watchful Miss Gookool. Frank Victor Romero is an enjoyably cocky playboy, Lori Barker a vulgarly materialistic Mrs Samuel and Rob Heanley doubles as a polite, overheated British client and a less convincing shady businessman/CIA operative who plays mas for real. The Orange Tree, a theatre on great form at the moment, deserve real credit for staging this play’s first major revival in the UK.


Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

Play Mas Show Info

Directed by Paulette Randall

Written by Mustapha Matura

Cast includes Seun Shote, Johann Myers, Melanie La Barrie, Frank Victor Romero, Lori Barker, Rob Heanley



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