The Rolling Stone***** (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: February 5, 2016 in Theatre

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Religious zealots are on the loose in Uganda again, but all similarities with The Book of Mormon end there. Chris Urch’s second play (I reviewed his first, Land of Our Fathers, here in September 2013) is an account of a community turning in on itself in pursuit of an unstoppable witch hunt and, as such, it invites comparisons with Arthur Miller’s masterpiece The Crucible. It is far from shamed by such comparisons, revealing itself to be a work of astonishing assurance, a blistering indictment of bigotry and hypocrisy. Urch concerns himself less with the doomed romance between the young Ugandan man Dembe (Fiston Barek) and the visiting Irish doctor Sam (Julian Moore-Cook) than with explaining a society in which prejudice becomes rooted and with showing how fascist movements grow in the fertile soil of distorted interpretations of a religion. Dembe’s older brother Joe (Sule Rimi) is a new Pastor, made to preach fiery homophobic rhetoric to reinforce his own tenuous position; his torn loyalties and those of his sister Naome (Faith Alabi) are heartbreaking. The touch paper is lit by their self-righteous neighbour (Jo Martin), a linchpin of the church whose own daughter (Faith Omoli) has already been struck dumb following a trauma caused by her zealotry. Urch’s writing is angry and occasionally brutal, as in Joe’s sermon, but also tender and compassionate, most notably when Dembe gives his interpretation of love to his sister. The flirtation between Dembe and Sam is playful, funny and moving – the innocent African who underestimates the power of reprisals that he faces meeting the more worldly European who overlooks the fact that Western liberal attitudes now stand for nothing. Ellen McDougall’s production, which comes from the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, turns the Orange Tree’s in-the-round stage into a caldron – a square platform lies at the centre and copies of The Rolling Stone “newspaper”, emblazoned with the banner headline “Hang ’em High”, lie scattered around to emphasise the extent of the forces conspiring to persecute Dembe and others who do not fit into Uganda’s “God-fearing” society. The acting is exemplary, but Barek, holding centre stage almost throughout, is truly outstanding, love-struck and terror-stuck with equal conviction. This is a production to savour and remember.

Performance date: 3 February 2016

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