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"Daddy" A Melodrama

Jeremy O Harris
Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

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Rebecca Bernice Amissah and T'Shan Williams as Gospel Choir, Claes Bang as Andre, Terique Jarrett as Franklin and Keisha Atwell as Gospel Choir. Credit: Marc Brenner
Claes Bang as Andre and Terique Jarrett as Franklin Credit: Marc Brenner
Terique Jarrett as Franklin Credit: Marc Brenner

The dramatist labels this play as a melodrama and this production matches that both in terms of being sensation-full theatre and in the sense of its use of music and song (melos is song in Ancient Greek) for there is a operatic flourish of music before the curtains part, a gospel chorus that pops up from nowhere, an emotional underscoring of music and even a rendition of the George Michael song “Father Figure”.

It begins with a sensational image: a beautiful black man emerging from the waters of a swimming pool. This is Franklin, a young artist who has been brought home by wealthy art collector Andre who isn’t only keen on his artistic creations.

The setting is Andre’s home in Bel Air (think hedonistic 1960s Hockney), beautifully realised by designer Matt Saunders with a real pool. It’s not just for swimming but also sex play and baptism; the cast are intermittently in and out of the water in brief trunks, naked or fully clothed (wardrobe must be being kept very busy).

Andre is dazzled by Franklin: he finds his legs so lovely, he nicknames Franklin Naomi (like Campbell) as he kisses his way up them. He wants to take care of him, to teach him. He’s concerned: “Are you OK?” he keeps asking. Franklin says yes, confessing this was his first time. Franklin moves in, sets up a studio to work on his soft sculptures for his first big show.

Claes Bang as Andre and Terrique Jarrett as Franklin are fascinating to watch as the play charts their relationship. A couple of the younger man's 20-something mates are made welcome visitors: Bellamy (Ioanna Kimbook) dreams of her own sugar daddy but Max (John McCrea) is both jealous and slightly suspicious. When Franklin’s mother, first met as messages on his phone supported by gospel singers, arrives in the flesh, a battle gradually emerges between Sharlene Whyte’s formidable Zora and “Daddy” Andre with a face-off at a bizarre wedding party.

“Daddy” is a play that is about art as well as relationships. Franklin feels that art lies in its creation and with the artist; when it becomes owned, it stops being art and that seems paralleled in their relationship. “You are mine and I am yours,” declares Andre; but who holds the power here? Who is exploiting whom?

The play’s confrontations make arresting theatre. Director Danya Taymor (who also directed the play’s Broadway première and has brought some of the same creative team with her) boldly embraces its surreal aspects and uses music, lighting and even cheekily splashing the audience to heighten the drama to great effect. This deliberate theatricality is paired with passages of expressive movement, with Jarrett especially eloquent in its performance.

Production and powerful performances may produce theatrical smoke and mirrors to disguise that “Daddy” doesn’t dig very deeply, but they make a longish play seem a short one. Andre is not the only Daddy here: there’s the real father missing from Franklin’s life and the Father that Zora believes in up in Heaven, and what of the doll daddy of Franklin’s artwork. Harris isn’t aiming at answers, but he is asking lots of questions that resonate way beyond these events at a Californian poolside.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton