Review by Daz Gale
National Theatre are in the midst of an exciting season full of hotly anticipated revivals. Playing alongside the recent opening of The Crucible is this revival of Pearl Cleage’s Blues For An Alabama Sky residing in the Lyttleton Theatre. With a star cast at the helm, this has been a show I have been looking forward to since its initial announcement but would it be able to live up to my own anticipation or would it give me the blues?
First staged in 1995, Blues For An Alabama Sky is set in New York in 1930. Following a decade of creative explosion, The Great Depression starting to take its toll on the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout this, Angel (Samira Wiley) and her friends struggle to keep their artistic dreams alive with all their lives changing once she falls for a stranger from Alabama.
Directed by Lynette Linton, making her National Theatre debut, the action plays out beautifully on the Lyttleton stage with an intricately designed set by Frankie Bradshaw fleshing out an apartment building. Through clever use of resolves and all the space of the building, we see the action taking place in multiple apartments as well as outside the building. The grand scale of the design lends itsel beautifully to the story and creates an always visually excitement watch. Frankie also designs the costumes which form an important part of the story – often gorgeously chic, always integral to the story and a way to understand who each character is instantly.
Pearl Cleage’s writing is wonderfully witty and fleshed out with plenty of opportunity to understand who each character is and give most of them the opportunity for development. With fantastic comic timing and punchlines, a good laugh is never far away in Blues For An Alabama Sky, but there is more depth to be had to, with the humour sometimes masking the more serious aspects of the show. With themes including abortion and homophobia, there is a lot of substance to this play which at its climax proves itself to be wholly powerful.
Samira Wiley may be best known for her roles in TV shows Orange Is The New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale. Here, she makes her UK stage debut leading the production as Angel Allen, proving her talents lie far beyond the screen. A truly remarkable performer, she has the audience in the palm of her hands from the moment she first bursts on to the stage staggering drunk in a fantastically exaggerated performer. Showing her versatility as an actress, she perfectly encapsulates the complexities of Angels character in a truly gripping portrayal.
Giles Terera plays Angels roommate Guy Jacobs. A big character with big dreams, Giles relishes the opportunity to play somebody who is a world away from his Olivier award winning turn as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, filling the stage with grand gestures and note-perfect mannerisms. Always captivating, and in keeping with the theme of the show where the comedy masks some more serious themes, Giles is once again an absolute revelation in this play.
Osy Ikhile plays Leland Cunningham, or “Alabama” as Angel likes to call him, in a mesmerising portrayal of a character who begins seemingly inconsequential only to have severe consequences for all the main cast. Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo is an undoubted highlight as the sweet natured and perhaps naïve Delia, who has perhaps the most character growth of anyone in the play and always lights up the stage with her fantastic presence, while Sule Rimi completes the main cast perfectly charming as the effervescent Sam Thomas.
The chemistry the 5 main cast members all have with each other lead to naturalistic scenes which destroys the barrier of the stage, allowing you to think you are in the apartment with them and part of this friendship group – such is the talent of these five wonderful actors.
A smattering of musical numbers are dotted around the play, feeling very much in keeping with the performative mature of both Angel and Guy, and allowing Samira Wiley and Giles Terera to showcase their stunning singing voices while feeling true to the story. The cast including all members of the ensemble coming together to sing ‘Dreams’ by Langston Hughes provides a rousing highlight to the show.
Blues For An Alabama Sky is a deeply powerful piece of theatre. Incredibly written, its themes may have taken place nearly 100 years ago but still feel relevant today. A wonderful cast play out these themes perfectly in what could be the best feat of acting I have seen in the National Theatre in a long time. Truly phenomenal both in its staging and its content, you certainly won’t have a case of the Blues watching this wonderful show.
Blues For An Alabama Sky plays at National Theatre until November 5th. Tickets from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/blues-for-an-alabama-sky
Photos by Marc Brenner