Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, Madani Younis, brings Winsome Pinnock's debut play back to a modern audience. Gillian Fisher reviews Leave Taking:

Under the scopic Artistic Direction of Madani Younis, and starring Adjoa Andoh and Sarah NilesWinsome Pinnock’s debut play Leave Taking explores the familiar dynamic of a family whose love for each other is tested by the stark divides of culture and generation.

Set in the round, Leave Taking is a glimpse into the kitchen-sink domesticity of the all-female Matthews family. Enid (Niles) is so proud of her two English daughters, delighting at their short vowels and Western independence. But as so often happened with the Windrush generation, Enid’s determination to fit in has come at the cost of her former self – the carefree and ambitious girl climbing the palms of her native Jamaica.

Leave Taking Bush Theatre

Sarah Niles (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

The set design by Rosanna Vize reflects the gloom of urban living perfectly, with distressed dark walls and minimal props. There is even an ingenious surprise feature that invites the audience straight into cast’s stormy turmoil. Pinnock’s work as a whole is incredibly emblematic; each of the characters are relatable without being prosaic. Streetwise Del (Seraphina Beh) feels stunted by a society that looks down upon her, so rebels by dancing all night in her DMs – Beh straddles mouthy bolshiness and frightened vulnerability with aplomb. Her sister Viv (Nicholle Cherrie) is the antithesis to Del’s party-girl persona; eager to please her mother through her grades, she stays in with her books. But she feels isolated, unrepresented in the work she pores over, growing ever more curious about the ancestry that her mother rejects.

Leave Taking Bush Theatre

Seraphina Beh & Sarah Niles (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

Despite these powerful performances from the children, it is Enid’s struggle to consolidate the two sides of herself that underpins Pinnock’s  narrative. Niles plays the single mother as a mass of oppressed emotion beneath the veneer of respectable BHS pleats – it is this incongruity that manifests itself through her two teenage daughters.

These specifically female relationships, especially that of mother and daughter, are beautifully explored throughout Leave Taking. The fierce protectiveness with which Enid presides over her girls is second only to her desire to provide for them. The significance of female energy and intuition is furthered by Andoh’s role of Mai, a world-weary Obeah woman with her own cross to bear. Andoh is sage, nonchalant and oddly majestic in her role, despite her stout-swigging scruffiness. She exudes wisdom through languid hip sways and level gaze.

Leave Taking Bush Theatre

Adjoa Andoh (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

As a play geared around identity and relationships, investment in the characters is key. Younis’ direction creates a subtle, gradually unravelling narrative that is inherently infused with emotion, making it impossible to not become embroiled. This  of course is also due to the five piece cast, who present their tales with consummate skill.

While the setting is pure Deptford backroom, Jamaica is a constant presence in Leave Taking, especially in terms of music. One character unrelenting in his ancestral pride is Brod (Wil Johnson) who, unlike his childhood friend Enid, firmly believes that the girls’ souls hail from the island. Johnson often provides comedic relief, upbeat and frequently ‘in the spirit’ thanks to an ever present hip flask. But he also encapsulates each situation with shrewd insight, seeming to see the bigger picture at all times. Pinnock’s play is full of such poignant statements and acute summaries about British society, often related with caustic Caribbean rhetoric.

Leave Taking Bush Theatre

Adjoa Andoh & Seraphina Beh (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

First staged in 1987, Pinnock’s narrative is reflective of so many first generation British families. Since Leave Taking’s first staging, many talented playwrights have touched upon the subject in their work, from debbie tucker green to Bola Agbaje. It is tempting to view the Matthews’ scenario as symptomatic of a bygone era – the Britain of today is surely a less divided society than it was at the tail end of the 80s. But Brod’s rant about paying £50 for citizenship is a stark reality check in the wake of Amber Rudd’s resignation.

Successfully holding its own in terms of socio-political relevance, the depiction of a fractured family is timeless; the beautifully expressed desire for belonging is universal. Pinnock’s writing remains intuitive, visceral and at times raw. Adoh owns the stage during her scenes, but the tale begins and ends with Enid. All roads link back to one woman’s loss of herself and the place she called home.

 

 

★★★★☆

Leave Taking runs at the Bush Theatre until 30 June 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.