IS GOD IS
by Aleshea Harris
Directed by Ola Ince
Royal Court Theatre – until 23 October
One of the Urban Dictionary definitions of “nasty” is a word to describe something that is ridiculously good. Between that and the more traditional meaning of the word, I have no hesitation in proclaiming that Aleshea Harris’s literal firecracker of a play is one of the nastiest shows in town. Acclaimed and awarded upon it’s 2018 Off-Broadway premiere, it’s not hard to see why, especially in Ola Ince’s boldly inventive, fabulously cast new production for the Royal Court. It’s astounding.
Imagine, if you dare, a younger, Black riff on a female-led Road Movie such as Thelma & Louise, crossed with a Jacobethan Revenge Drama then overlaid with strips of particularly bitter domestic sitcom, and even Spaghetti Western, but alchemised into something profoundly, essentially theatrical… and you’ll have some idea of what’s going on here. A set of twins, disfigured in an unexplained fire, receive a letter from their presumed-dead mother (a very much alive, almost deified, and magnificently terrifying Cecilia Noble, screaming blue murder from a hospital bed and with a face damaged beyond recognition in the aforementioned conflagration), which lights the touch paper for a vengeful adventure that sees the young women head across America in search of their no-good Dad and to avenge Mom.
The writing is at times poetic and extravagant, and at others brutal and spare, but never hits a false note. It’s full of fascinating detail, quirks and apparent non sequiturs that add up to a wonderfully vivid picture of an only intermittently civilised world spinning off it’s axis.
Probably not for the faint-hearted, but a rollicking good time for everybody else, Harris’s script is particularly impressive because it transitions between these ostensibly mismatched genres almost seamlessly. She, and her resourceful director, have created a modern America that is at once recognisable, relatable even, but also so crazy that it feels like anything could happen. And it pretty much does. Chloe Lamford’s eye-popping, picture-postcard-meets-your-worst-nightmare sets help hugely, as does a uniformly brilliant cast.
Nobody in this company drops the ball: as Racine and Anaia, Tamara Lawrance and Adelayo Adedayo convincingly convey the connection and rapport between identical twins while also making vivid and fascinating some specific differences. As the more outgoing of the pair, and the one less fire damaged, perhaps not coincidentally, Lawrance projects a sunny confidence that masks a breathtaking capacity for brutality. Adedayo is more bruised and watchful, and ultimately very moving as the kinder of the two, or at least the kinder until circumstances put that particular character trait out of her grasp. They are both terrific.
Vivienne Acheampong’s barely suppressed fury as a taken-for-granted, upwardly mobile Mum is both hilarious and unsettling, while Ernest Kingsley Jr and Rudolph Mdlongwa are glorious as her obnoxious twin boys, the former especially funny as a kid so transfixed by his own literary genius as a poet that he can’t find time to help with the chores. Mark Monero is excellent as a father figure who at first seems not quite what was expected…and then….well, come see for yourself.
It’s a bonkers theatrical thrill ride, and one that anybody with an interest in new writing ought to see. Laugh-out-loud funny and deeply troubling, is it a bit early in Harris’s career for her to have created a modern masterpiece? Well….here it is. This is a truly nasty show, and I liked it very very much.