The Rolling Stone

Chris Urch
West Yorkshire Playhouse and Royal Exchange Theatre
Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Fiston Barek (Dembe) and Faith Omole (Wummie) in The Rolling Stone Credit: Jonathan Keenan

Let me say straight away that this short run of The Rolling Stone seems like a play still in development.

It has dialogue which is, albeit at times brilliant, redundant. And it has weakness of narrative structure, often changing gear as the plot engages—a fault related to the problem of the forementioned over-indulgence in dialogue which takes us nowhere in particular.

However, I cannot over-emphasise that neither of these faults should put you off seeing the play, or indeed seeing this production. If nothing else, see it for its energy, its talented cast, its intensity and passion, its defenceless honesty. And see it for some lovely dialogue, for example: "The flower you know will never bloom", of a doomed youth.

And see it because here is a new young playwright who has huge potential. This play and production, which could well carry the legend "construction work in progress", eschews all 21st century theatrical frippery and ploughs into the heart of drama.

Here is the sensibility of a young Miller, a young Ibsen, a young Sophocles. How welcome to see love, family, morality, fear, joy, prejudice, youth and bitterness, without video images and campery to obliterate the impact. A potential classic then.

We are in latter-day Uganda, where fundamentalist, money-grubbing Christianity rules the roost and screams that a man who lies with a man should be done to death. And young Dembe, exquisitely played by Fiston Barek (though, in truth, no one actor deserves mention over the other five), loves Sam (Robert Gilbert), an Irish doctor with a Ugandan mother.

Elder brother Joe (Sule Rimi), now replacing the recently dead father and priest, and sister Wummie (Faith Omole) are immediately at risk. Neighbour (or mother?) Mama (Donna Berlin) and her speechless daughter Naome (Ony Uhiara) make up the cast of six.

The Rolling Stone of the title is an actual Ugandan newspaper that started the practice of naming, even printing photographs of people who were suspected of being homosexual. This led to beatings and death. Thank goodness the evil rag was banned five years ago. But how many lives were ruined?

In his treatment of these monstrosities, writer Chris Urch comes close to exploiting every trick in the classic book. Characters change, develop, before our eyes. They lie, they are impassioned, they are devious. They are brave and cowardly. Things happen. Layers of plot slide away to reveal new layers and developments. In passing we learn much of Uganda as this complex web is woven.

Director Ellen McDougal and designer Joanna Scotcher have opted for an empty stage (traverse, though it should have been in-the-round) and this is a good decision. Nothing gets in the way of the emotional intensity. There are, for me, a couple of obtrusive sequences of a capelli, but the sound design (Dave Norton), a clear and simple bed of hums and drones, screws up the tension without being obtrusive.

The play is riddled with moral questions, personal, domestic, public, religious. Few who see this will have difficulty answering some of them. Few will not be moved, horrified. And yet there is laughter and challenging argument. So most certainly this is my sort of play. I hope to see it again in a few years time, after many notes have been acted on. And I look forward to hearing more of this brilliant young writer.

There is for me, one terminal weakness. We are not really given one thing to gnaw on as we leave the theatre. The Rolling Stone ends with a statement of intention and we must guess at the consequences. Perhaps this ending needs another ingredient. See it. See what you think.

Reviewer: Ray Brown

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