Does Ma bum look big in this?

This play had been thoroughly recommended to me by a number of sources and I could very quickly understand why. Much to my surprise, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is virtually bum-free! Of course, actors on stage had bottoms, and those in the audience were sitting on theirs, but this play was not as bottom-orientated as one might assume… Nonetheless, the bottom of most importance – my own – became accordingly numbed throughout the performance as the suspense of the play forced me to sit tensely on the edge of my (cheap) seat.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre is an absolute spectacle. Read on to know why it was such a delight to be sitting in the cheap seats.

Date of viewing: 13/02/2016

Production: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Seat: Stalls, S 29

How cheap!?: £5 (Entry Pass tickets for 16-25 year olds)

If it wasn’t confusing enough to realise how absent of bottoms Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom really was, my confusion increased when I realised that a sizeable chunk of time had passed before Ma Rainey herself made an appearance on stage. This play is not really about Ma Rainey (which is much more interesting, I promise!) but about her accompanying support band. Throughout the play, the mostly white, middle-class audience is given a serious history lesson regarding the social and cultural implications of being an African American musician in the 1920s. The lives of trombonist Cutler (played by Clint Dyer), pianist Toledo (Lucian Msamati), bassist Slow-drag (Giles Terera) and trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle) are laid raw with sensitivity, darkness, humour, a whole lot of banter and so much cool-ness that Brixton’s greatest hipster would hang his head in shame.

What makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom so different from any other play I’ve seen recently is that it supplies its audience with some fascinating objects of people-watching. At times the plot feels slow – until you realise that this is a play about people and the lives they lead. Consequently, the chance for character exploration is outstanding and ultimately insightful. By the second act the story picks up dramatically and is constantly exciting and thrilling (for reasons I’d like to but daren’t explain!) Interesting themes including lesbian subtleties, self-esteem and speech impediment were not expanded in much detail but the play can be forgiven this because of its extensive and in-depth exploration of race, stardom, gender, innovation, religion and violence.

“…so much cool-ness that Brixton’s greatest hipster would hang his head in shame”

Unsurprisingly for a piece at the National Theatre – which I consider to be the home of excellent set and staging in London – the stage was totally inventive. Scenes in the play took place in one single building which was made really clear by the open-spaced black box set. Three scene location sets were seamlessly raised and lowered, convincingly depicting three levels of one single building. I’m sure the political implications were purposefully highlighted in that the black band members occupied the lowest floor and the white record producer, Sturdyvant, ferociously guarded his top level studio.

The most fantastic thing about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is that all four band members play the music live. They do so with natural flair and the transitions between action and musical performance were seamless and effortless. A great attempt is made to present a degree of musical authenticity, but unavoidably the actor-musicians’ performances are unavoidably tainted with the experience of and exposure to contemporary training. Ma Rainey, played by Sharon D Clarke, appears primarily to belt out her blues favourites and the audience responds in rapturous applause. The level of musicianship amongst the actors in this play is truly special.

Individual performances were of a consistently high standard. In particular the four band members worked extremely well together and their cohesion seemed extremely natural. Although it took a while to become immersed into the flow of dialect and colloquialism, the band’s appropriately expressive acting made it easy. Clint Dyer as the band-leading trombonist Cutler was visually expressive and authoritative in his role, while Giles Terera as the bassist Slow-drag played his part with more reserve and quiet sensitivity.

I refer to the other members of the band more extensively: firstly, Toledo played by Lucian Msamati is an instantly loveable character. Lucian’s character provides an educated voice of reason within the group and he portrayed these attributes wonderfully, exuding a presence of older wisdom. His versatility as a performer was notable, playing a part which demonstrated both humour and seriousness. Throughout, Lucian’s performance was convincing – not once did he allow the audience to question his philosophy or thinking because he powerfully, but humbly, asserted his knowledgeable persona. Trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle) was singled out from the start for his youthfulness and radical ideas. I wasn’t always entirely convinced by O-T’s performance – but it’s hard to decipher whether this was due to his acting ability or because Levee himself is a somewhat superficial character who is so intense and fleetingly changing. O-T gives passionate, powerful monologues which undo any previous damage and plays Levee with an irritating but necessary cockiness and erraticism.

“truly special”

Although some minor characters offered less memorable performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom presents audiences with a solid cast. Finbar Lynch who plays Ma’s manager is one of only two white actors on stage. He plays the part extremely well and is submissive to Ma’s diva-ish requests but bold enough to attempt his own (feeble) go at authority. Finbar rose to the challenge of the surroundings of a natural funny cast successfully achieving a number of laughs in and of his own right.

I believe I cannot attend a performance at the National Theatre without an accompanying favouring bias. It continually produces good quality theatre and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is certainly no exception. Whether black, white, blue or green I urge you to book a seat for your own bottom for this outstanding production – you won’t be disappointed.


the girl sitting in the cheap seats



You must be THIS tall to see the Minotaur

Today’s review is one for the young at heart…or, more accurately, for those actually young.

Before my arrival at the Unicorn theatre, I hadn’t quite been enlightened to the venue’s tagline: the UK’s theatre for young audiences. Apparently, as a student, I’m not quite young enough to be the ideal target for this company’s work. Despite my initial doubts, I was pleased to find Minotaur to be a child-friendly rather than childish performance.

Date of viewing: 06/02/2016

Production: Minotaur

Seat: A1

How cheap!?: £4.50 (two-for-one using discount code ‘minotaur241’)

Minotaur depicts the story of a Greek tragedy with which I was only somewhat familiar. The tale is drenched in themes of intolerance, greed and death, (a rather grisly account to be retold to an audience which, prior to the performance, had been invited to paint handmade cards with glitter glue in an amusingly decorated foyer), which are treated with a sophistication that is honest to its young audience. The venue is a whole building dedicated to the theatrical education of young minds, for which it must be applauded. This performance doesn’t shy away from the tragic roots of ancient theatre, despite the majority of its seats being held by those too young to be allowed to phone the box office and book the tickets themselves.

The Weston theatre is one of two theatres inside the Unicorn building, and boasts an inventive, round performance space. The intimate feel was highly appropriate for the play, which, throughout its scenes is based on a island.

“a whole building dedicated to the theatrical education of young minds”

From the very beginning, it was clear that this performance would use technical aspects such as light and sound to good effect. The lighting, often fearfully dark, was successful in its affirmation of the cold, lifeless cave-like labyrinth by which the Minotaur (who evoked occasional squeals from my eight year old companions…and my 20 year old fellow student) is housed.

Sound, too, was mostly thoughtfully used. Echo effects enforced the lonely isolation of the labyrinth, and were well suited to a performance space which was open, and, in terms of set or props, incredibly bare. Other snippets of sound or music were generally used to further freight the youthful audience, but thoughtless musical phrases did exist, appealing to the contemporary musical tastes of youngsters but not always corresponding to the needs of the narrative.

Performers in this piece were not outstanding. Nonetheless their efforts were mostly noble. A small cast of four allowed players to take on multiple roles – a technique which always provides a challenge to the actors and audience alike.

The character Ariadne, (who at her core is a troubled teenager loathing the dependence imposed upon her by her father), is played by the beautiful Anna Elijasz whose exotic accent makes the plays Greek origins more believable. Mostly, she treats the role with sensitivity. Although in assuming other roles her acting is less convincing, her portrayal of Ariadne is suitably emotionally conflicted. She rightly receives our emotional involvement; we don’t know exactly how to feel for or about her, only that we must.

It is not easy to tell, however, whether the sympathy she implored was given due to her own persuasion skills or whether she has her cold, uncaring father to thank for imposing such a need. Most experienced actor of the cast, Rupert Holliday Evans fantastically played the villainous King Minos with a stiff demeanour and smug expression which makes Ariadne (and all other characters) feel detested. Rupert’s ability to adapt to taking on other roles, as a play with such a small cast warrants, was much more evident than that of the other actors. He carried with him a sense of experience on which his comrades most probably relied.

To tell the truth, I expected very little from the performance when I sat down – which had filled very few of its seats (…or was it just that under 10s take up so little space?) – but grew very quickly to feel invested in the performance. Watching Minotaur feels educational because it returns modern theatre to its very roots. It confronts ‘young audiences‘ (which, for the sake of my visit, must be imaginatively broadened in its definition) with tragedy which remains unresolved – a very brave thing to do. This strange little theatre with its odd little play has, thus, won my respect. Even as a theatre-loving adult I have tended to steer clear of Greek tragedy, but this performance well and truly proves the accessibility of Greek theatre without too much compromise.

“returns modern theatre to its very roots”

This is a play short enough to watch on a lunch-break  or between lectures. If you aren’t brave enough to go alone, bring along an eight year old for moral support… Although one of you might have to be prepared to lend a hand to hide behind when the Minotaur makes his stampeding entrance.


the girl sitting in the cheap seats