Blues for Mr Charlie

James Baldwin

Co-production between Talawa and the New Wolsey, Ipswich

Tricycle, Kilburn

(2004)

Review by Philip Fisher

The Tricycle goes from strength to strength. It really is becoming a powerhouse in North West London, especially for the Irish and Black communities. Like any theatre, it has its misses, but the hits, almost always revivals, when they come are of an incredibly high standard.

Blues For Mr. Charlie is a heart-rending tale that deserves a transfer at the end of what will be a successful run. This Talawa Theatre co-production with the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich may struggle to achieve wider acclaim but only because it has a 21-strong cast .

James Baldwin wrote this play in 1964 but, with its story of racial and racist oppression in the Deep South of the USA, it feels as if it ought to have been centuries ago. In fact, if one looks for a close parallel, it would be in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, another play set in the American Deep South that centres on the farcical trial of a dirt-poor white man accused and acquitted of killing one of his black brethren.

The term "social justice" is literally not understood by one of the characters and the hatred that rages between Black and White (or should that be redneck?) communities in the symbolically named Plaguetown borders on madness.

Richard Henry (Michael Price) is the son of a preacher, played by Ray Shell. He escaped town at 16 to become a singer in New York but after a dozen or so years, the high-life became too much and he was busted out of town.

On his return, he brings with him uppity Northern attitudes and the belief that society should change. He entrances Sharon Duncan Brewster's beautiful Juanita, a woman who has done this in her turn to almost every man in the community, both Black and White.

The divide between the communities is almost absolute. Only a brave man like Rolf Saxon's newspaper editor Parnell dares have a foot in both camps.

Richard has also offended every White hick in town, as much as anything by his existence. In particular, Lyle Britten, played by Barnaby Kay, feels threatened. He is newly-married with a young baby but has a secret love of black women and a big chip on his shoulder. When his pride collides with that of Richard, sparks and eventually bullets fly.

Paulette Randall, the artistic director of Talawa, is at her very best in this production, greatly assisted by Libby Watson's infinitely adaptable clapboard set and a super cast.

There are scenes amongst angry Blacks, jokey Whites, a set piece in court and dreamlike flashbacks, and almost all work. Together they bring out the fears on both sides and, importantly, the parallels between Lyle and Richard. Their main problem is that they are too much alike.

Blues For Mr Charlie may last for around three hours but the tension never drops. It would make a tremendous contribution to any debate on racism and its most terrifying facet is that it is set merely a generation ago.

We must be grateful that however bad things may get today, the institutionalised racism and hatred that appears on this stage as a societal norm is now regarded by all as deeply shocking.