The Rain King:theatre review

Review originally published on DigYorkshire in October 2013. As seen at Harrogate Theatre as part of All Points North 2013.

Sarah Wallis’ The Rain King presents depths of meaning; intensity of character; complicit and knowing humour keeping us on side; profound reserves of talent both in writing and acting; a real pleasure, and a hidden gem.

Where the touches of humour threatened to run away with themselves the playwright carefully drew them back again so that the many very funny moments never overwhelmed the message. This was particularly in evidence in the final scenes where Aidan finally sings Elvis – the emotional tone shifted beautifully, good writing and good timing from the actors making it an unforgettable climax.

Lighting and sound were impeccable throughout. Several scenes played out, compellingly, in total darkness. Little touches were universally lovely (the fire lit by bicycle lamps). The constant sound of crickets chirping in the background not only set the scene and created the heat of night-time Africa, but also maintained the fiction of the world of the play for the audience, freeing up the actors to use silence and dialogue expressively without breaking the mood.

The young student’s romance with Janet, the older woman who works for the charity was delicately negotiated, as was the love triangle that began to emerge with the local woman, Msoko. All three actors stepped carefully around the intricate web of gender, age and race that the play had woven around them, and tenderly and subtly inhabited the three roles, the strong sense of sympathy and identification in all three conveying itself with great ease to the audience. Beautiful acting and charismatic performances meant that we were as much engaged in Aidan’s rite of passage as in Janet’s search for meaning, and in Msoko’s struggle for identity through trauma.

The play begins with Msoko’s singing, in the dark, and her character develops in wholly unexpected ways as the play progresses – sometimes dismissed as a figure of fun, somewhat uncomfortably, by the two ‘white’ characters, it is Msoko’s spirituality and sense of meaning that ends up defining everybody’s experience, finally alienates Janet, and turns the whole play on its head. Msoko having been impenetrable for much of the play, Lulia Togara’s heights of emotion were unexpected and breathtaking when they occurred. The sensuality and humour of Peter Watts (as well as his superlative Elvis skills) were perfect for Aidan, and Nicola Marsh brought a beautiful combination of experience and vulnerability to the character of Janet.

What was striking upon leaving the theatre was how much had not been said. There were back stories barely fleshed out, whole lives hinted at, an entirely believable past and future for all three characters; we had glimpsed only a few weeks in their lives.

To the great credit of the director, writer and actors, contributions to African charities were invited at the end of the play and there was not a single audience member who, upon leaving the studio set, riding the breaking wave of the monsoon’s arrival and Msoko’s elemental relief, did not feel inspired to donate.

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