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The Mountaintop

Katori Hall
Trafalgar Studios 1
(2009)

It is great to see the enterprising little Theatre 503 achieving a fully fledged West End transfer. The Mountaintop takes an unorthodox look at the Rev Martin Luther King Junior through the eyes of Camae, a cussing, tyro motel maid who turns out to be a trainee angel in disguise.

The play is set in the shabby twin room hired by the preacher at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, in the small hours of 4th April 1968, the day that James Earl Ray is destined to take the civil rights leader's life on the balcony outside.

The play is chiefly distinguished by a lifelike impression of the African-American leader from TV regular, David Harewood, the Friar Tuck who so offended the BNP's Nick Griffin.

Harewood's vocal work is immaculate, as he conjures up the powerful vibrato of a man on a mission to win hearts and minds in a cause that will only eventually reach its ultimate goal forty years on with the election of Barack Obama as the first Black President of the United States.

It initially appears that Lorraine Burroughs' character has been invented in order to seduce a man who many regard as saintly and in doing so, bring out his dark side but also his humanity. In fact, her purpose is something quite different.

The supernatural element is initially signified by the kind of apocalyptic weather conditions that normally accompany Gothic movies of the Hammer horror variety. Repeatedly, claps of thunder send a man with unshakeable belief into trembling fear.

Little can he know it but his terror is justified, as the sexy little chit of a chambermaid achieves a kind of Supergirl transformation. She emerges as the right-hand woman to a God who, according to her description, is probably the spitting image of Beyoncé.

Before we get that far, the Rev King does at least get the chance to rumble his way through some satisfying speeches, although the best quasi-political polemic is delivered in a witty but not wholly unworthy pastiche by Ms Burroughs.

If the first half promises much but portrays the great man's character better through weakness than in terms of his remarkable power to win over the most hostile of audiences, the remainder of the play is out of this world - literally.

At that point, the angel tells the man his fate and the drama rather loses its way, as it descends into a comedy that could have featured any supposedly upstanding man and loud woman. They bicker and debate the Preacher's short-term future and an eternity being rewarded for the religious commitment and political fervour that have ensured that the name of Martin Luther King will be remembered for generations, if not centuries.

It is quite possible that The Mountaintop loses some of its intimacy and magic in the steeply raked Trafalgar Studios 1, where almost anything looks distant even from halfway back. However, it is disappointing that American playwright, Katori Hall could not manage to convey more of the character and opinions of a hero to millions, who might arguably be regarded as one of the greatest political leaders of the last century.

Terry O'Donovan reviewed the original production at Theatre 503

Philip Fisher