Rough Crossings

Simon Schama, adapted for the stage by Caryl Philips
Headlong Theatre
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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Rough Crossings covers an epic story. It begins in American's Deep South with the slaves who fought for the British in the American War of Independence in exchange for their freedom. When the British retreat, they take the survivors to the cold and inhospitable Nova Scotia where they try to establish a home. Their sufferings lead them to send a supplicant, Thomas Peters (Patrick Robinson) to ask Granville Sharp for help. The British White liberalist Sharp, had become famous for fighting for black freedom under British law, and in his idealist enthusiasm he sets up the Sierra Leone Company which ships the black supplicants back to Africa to try to establish a new egalitarian society in Freetown.

Philips' adaptation certainly packs in a lot and the first half, jumping from sea story to different continents, requires concentration. In the second half the story narrows to the power struggles and ideals of the new community in Freetown with some lovely vignettes for the characters (such as the story of Anna Maria Falconbridge) allowing the plot to establish more depth to the protagonists.

One of the primary impacts of the show is the fantastic staging by designer Laura Hopkins, who uses a central tilting stage to bisect our view, from which we see the action above and below decks. Director Rupert Goold uses this to lovely effect with the opening physical theatre of slaves being pushed from the decks to drown in the water below. Special mention must also go to the striking lighting by Paul Pyant, which drowns us in the water and burns us in the sunlight. Complimenting this further are the projections which are stretched across the background canvas to move us through the different settings as well as the legal battles.

This is indeed 'worthy' drama and, just like the legal battles that were required to fight the case for freedom, manages to get caught in the intricacies of the detail in the first half. However the second half is mesmerising, not least with the superb performances of Patrick Robinson and Ed Hughes (playing John Clarkson) who perfectly contrast and clash in the fight for independence against the security of structure.

Amongst all this is the soprano singing of Miranda Colchester and the stunning gospel voice of Dawn Hope whose soul lifting singing could inspire anyone to fight for freedom from the depths of despair. This is by no means a light evening at the theatre but it is phenomenally rewarding from the force of the sufferings endured to the theatrical poise of the setting. This is one to watch, not only for Goold's talent as a fearless director but for the account of a journey to freedom and equality which is still relevant today.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Lyric, Hammersmith

Reviewer: Cecily Boys

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