This Little Relic

Belgrade Theatre Company

in association with BBC Radio


Let’s get the positives over first. There was some beautiful acting (or reading – for this audio play all had scripts in hand) in a socially distanced onstage Belgrade-in-association-with-BBC event, and the casting (all seven members) was highly apt and successful.

The ‘actors’ – Karla Marie Sweet’s new play is actually set in Coventry - played their parts nobly. And the same was true of some almost spectacularly good singing from exactly the same number of (in this case) female performers, at the back, who brought all the tenderness, richness and occasionally fire to something fusing Blues, Spirituals and exciting central or southern African rhythms.

These last, the singers, were sprinkled quite liberally between scenes; some repeats yet never became dull, but rather lent some kind of continuity that was assuredly beneficial. And this was the Belgrade’s own senior youth choir. Not only was their ensemble excellent, polished, perfect I’d say, but the three front row upper (soprano) soloists were stunningly fine, mature and affecting.

In two parts, and possibly in three, this ideally tuned group proved even more captivating; and the authentic melismas (a kind of decoration or tweaking to the vocal lines) plus some wonderful descanting (in counterpoint) were simply marvellous.

When in the briefest of moments a fourth slightly older soloist was fed in whose inviting lower timbres suggested an alto or mezzo, the music gained all the more. And the icing on the cake was when the conductor, Unamay Olomolaiye (two if not more of her close relations were among this prodigiously talented group) turned around to face the audience and to add her own utterly distinctive variations and elaborations. The music, and her musical wisdom and direction, all but sensational, were without doubt a high point, first-class throughout.

A cupboardful of ideas

Of the (radio) actors, invidious perhaps to pick out – this was a more than adequate and in some cases a top team – I’d pick out straight away Ajay (Quasim Mahmood) in what emerged as a delightfully and in the text doubtless intended comic interpretation. It wasn’t just his wit, it was his variety. He scarcely repeated a twinkle or flicker or gesture – he had a cupboardful of ideas of how to act and naughtily amuse, many of them ingenious, and one wished, how one wished, after a prominent start that he didn’t get slightly sidelined.

Another was also in a sense peripheral, but important to the underscoring of such meaning as there was: Ira (Tijan Sarr), a kind of mysterious figure who seemed to be like the inner prompter, or conscience, counsellor or doppelgänger to Delroy Brown’s Mr.Sims, the latter another lovely performance, someone trying, as part of the story, to get together a play and bring some coherence to the disparate moods and personalities of his charges.

He (and his co-lead) have both (says the play) worked with youngsters, children certainly, and a lot of that kind of generosity showed in his whole demeanour. This was a kind man, a good man; not necessarily an over-intelligent or unflawed man (flaws are pretty central to the unfolding background information), but one genuinely doing his best. It came over in his (limited, but effective movements; and in his speaking throughout.

Not everyone, including he, could avoid dropping their voices in places, not necessarily where the moment demanded it. Partly, perhaps, because they were speaking to a close-up BBC microphone while also to us, the B2 audience; although their projection to us, as well as for the BBC listeners (this weekend), may actually, if anything, have helped: it reduced the kind of ‘radio drama-ese’ which can be so tedious, an encouraged pose that dogs and blights a good many radio drama broadcasts. It’s a trap this cast, and the presiding trio of Director Justine Themen (the Belgrade’s Co-Artistic Director), Dramaturg Ola Animashawun and Producer Nadia Molinari (and their deputies) simply didn’t fall into. All credit to them.

A series of vignettes

Two of the girls could be a bit iffy in that respect, yet Emma Cunniffe, when her role of Jen (< > Jane) – the missing bit – became a vital ingredient near the end, really came into her own and gave what for. Best, or clearest, speaker - not unnaturally - was the, as it were, heroine, Alex (Aimee Powell), the put-upon, quite distressed but brave faced girl who is on a search for one and or two lost parents, and whose inner desolation at this occasions the proclaimed underlying motif of the whole show: “Who am I?” A really attractive, beautifully phrased performance by Aimee all round.

Puzzled or confused or underdeveloped (or masquerading) personalities could be said to apply to the whole seven-strong cast. Relationships that are doomed not to work are a central part of it, too. It is here that an instance of the piece’s weakness began to make itself apparent. Underlying, or indeed forward-lying, idea (intention, at least) might indeed be there, but the series of twosome exchanges, duets one might call them, each finely performed, began increasingly to fragment this play into a kind of series of vignettes.

And while the planned contrasts were a plus, the quite casual interrelation of one patch, one segment, with another began to nibble away at the overall coherence - absolutely crucial, certainly for a successful, even un-setted, non-moved occasion, which is what we were happy to be there for. Radio may be different.

No, the weakness, I’m afraid, was the script. Every now and then one’s ears pricked up and one felt delight at a beautifully chosen, unexpected word which had nosed its way into the text. Not often enough. The story here, featuring a worthy attempt to revive ‘The Black Doctor’, itself drawn from a French original, by Ira Aldridge (1807-67), America’s (and later all Europe’s) first inspiredly successful black actor, was not easily followable, despite best efforts.

The actual importance (relevance was OK) of the story was difficult to fathom. Was it an illuminating event, even mainly to listen to (no light effects, but an absolutely brilliant one-person onstage sounds operative: steps, stomping, rustles, crackles, rippings, crashes, tinkles, a gloriously varied, teasing repertoire, if audible in a few cases mainly to the leering microphone - maybe Lorna Newman, styled ‘Production Coordinator’? It was not.

One major, salient reason was this very point about not diction, not elocution, but verbal content. A large amount of this brand-new modern version’s language is TV soap standard, maybe with a reason, but with the danger that the emotions could go down the not-too-deep hatch too. Cliché is rarely far away. A play, radio or otherwise – amongst other things – may be to entertain, to tease, to instruct, to uplift, to insult even, to enrich, to inspire thought and reaction; could be all of these; or whatever else you like to add. Music apart, I found precious little of that here. It may have been a third or fourth or even fifth draft, but it felt like a first. To 02-10-21.

Roderic Dunnett


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