death topper 

Family Tree

Coventry Belgrade


Family Tree is a first-class production of in many ways a first-class play. As a dramatic work, it holds one rapt. As a staging, it works wonderfully. And as a piece of acting, with just a five-man cast, it reveals itself to be superb.

But then, what else could one expect from ATC – the Actors Touring Company? Since its foundation in 1978 – spanning 45 years – it has pounded out almost 90 plays – an average of two a year. Much of its repertoire is fresh, daring, contemporary and original. International as well, for its selection of stageworks reflects a keen interest in the theatre of other countries. It frequently takes onboard both challenging plays,  dynamic interpretations and outside influences – Scandinavia, for instance.

Its work in collaboration recently with other companies – an aspect it considers important, for philosophical, not just financial, reasons, which has yielded marvellous riches (as here). A sequence of eight Artistic Directors have all shared their own vision with a similar sequence of rapt audiences.

The Olivier Awards, not surprisingly, have rewarded their efforts. And Family Tree, too, has picked up a prestigious award. Collaboration with whom? Northern Stage (Newcastle); The Young Vic; the Royal Court; Soho Theatre; Orange Tree Theatre. And here, the Belgrade.

Under the inspiring keen eye of ATC’s Artistic Director, Matthew Xia (a doyen and enabler of that extraordinary company the Theatre Royal, Stratford East), and a curious yet engaging set from Simon Kenny that looked like a mixture of stalagmites, tree trunks and erect penes, this show took off at the very start, thanks to a more than five star performance from Aminita Francis as Henrietta Lacks.

John Hopkins University (School of Medicine) in Baltimore openly concedes. ‘in 1951 Henrietta was one of a diverse group of patients who unknowingly donated cells: initially the only human cell line able to reproduce indefinitely: to be maintained in culture for an extended period of time.’   

The play is in essence an attempt to recount Henrietta’s story, to pay tribute to her, and to question whether such medical activity is in fact an abuse of privacy. Mojisola Adebayo – who has already had two collections of plays published by Bloomsbury - has created a thoroughly entertaining effort, rich in humour, revelation, gravity and significance, some of it very much in-yer-face, some admirably subdued.

Francis is the key to it all. Her range of moves and gestures struck me as virtually unique. One rarely encounters a performer of such continuous variety and dexterity.  Every inch of her becomes a vehicle of meaning: arms, hands, fingers, eyes, teeth, neck, ankles, shoulders. I can’t think when I witnessed such a feast of gestures. This an actress already at the height of her powers: although at this rate, I can’t imagine she won’t take these phenomenal skills even further.

She’s abetted by a trio of very energetic, sometimes raucous, deeply intelligent women – one almost says girls, such is their virtuosity and ranging from ebullient to sharply ironic to sympathetic. Each taking more than one role, but not too many.


Aminita Francis, Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph,

Aimée Powell and Alistair Hall

Again talent stalking the stage. Mofetoluwa Akande the somewhat beefy one, self-confident, impressively inventive and with leadership qualities. Aimée Powell, initially the rather put-upon one (Nurse), but expanding her personality into a medley of different characters, or with different emphases. And – for so it proved by the end - Keziah Joseph, fabulous scion of the Central School and, many will know, a veteran of The Archers, whose bursting into soliloquy towards the end was a staggering piece of stagecraft and speaking: surely up there with the best.

Well, were there issues? Yes, of course, not least those picked out by Adebayo at every sensible point, and especially the morality of Henrietta Lacks’ original experience. ‘Why should they make millions from her body, and she get nothing?’

An interesting thought, especially today. Though one could just say – given the context - why not?

But there’s another issue – with text, and of course pretty much non-PC today. We could, and did, laugh at the delightful wryness of umpteen jokes – or serious ones – about ‘white men’s’ assumption of superiority, of their stupidity, of their immorality, desire for gain, once so obviously at the expense of the black man (or woman). And of course spoken with humour such finger pointing, as here, has a great place in theatre.

But also of course, generalisations won’t do if one has a moral agenda. The more the dismissal of the ‘white’ gets played out, in seriousness or fun, one has to ask the question, is there possibly a reverse? Might there be such a thing as ‘black’ racism – to use that much overused, rather self-centred, even abysmal phrase?

Today – as I and I think the majority see it - we all live, together, in an amazingly multicultural society. We weren’t, in 1951. Indeed the black community – in Lewisham and New Cross, where I grew up, saw their opposite numbers, with a lot of justification, as odious, obnoxious, thuggish, and stupid. At least, that was how it was. Contrast our (to us now, beautiful) immigrant families, or rather their descendants today, all friends at school. Look at the Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Ugandan Asian population. Again, schoolmates. The image of the granny who can’t speak any English is long gone.

So I loved the play, and the performances, including Alistair Hall as the strange, silent man in cowboy hat who moves across the stage with brilliantly picked out steps, and will just as mysteriously die and be buried by the triad (another wonderful scene). But I don’t square entirely with Mojisola’s content. I find it just as partisan as it assumes me to be. And that can’t be good for either of us.

Incidentally my favourite presenter on BBC Radio, just by happenstance, and by a mile, is…Dotun Adebayo.

The family tree will be growing to 18-03-23.

Roderic Dunnett


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