The week in theatre: Pass Over; Love, Loss & Chianti and more – review

Kiln; Riverside Studios; Coronet; Bush, London
Antoinette Nwandu’s play about the US race divide flits thrillingly from laughter to rage, Christopher Reid’s poetry is a challenge on stage, and The Tin Drum makes for an unforgettable one-man show

Pass Over is a parable for all time: it is, according to a stage direction, set in 1855, the 13th century BC and “right now”. Two black men are living rough on a street corner in an unnamed American city. They have nothing but each other: their bodies and their voices.

Destitution, struggle and persecution are the themes of American playwright Antoinette Nwandu’s powerful, entertaining and desolating 2017 play, indebted to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and drawing on the Book of Exodus. The evening begins with Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) waking Moses (Paapa Essiedu), who has been supine on the ground, and giving him a colossal fright. The men’s laughter fills the air, passes the time. “What you fix to do today?” asks Kitch. “Big old plans,” replies Moses, “to rise up to my full potential… you feel me?”

Essiedu rises up to his full potential: light on his feet one moment, walking as if his boots were filled with lead the next. Eustache Jnr as Kitch is tremendous too. Watching him dream aloud about caviar on toast – spreading the word “caviar” as if each syllable could be savoured – is one of many minutely realised entertainments in this meticulously physical show, superbly directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Spike Lee made a film of Pass Over in 2018, but the piece is ideally suited to the theatre. And Robert Jones’s ingenious design offsets required roadside bleakness with discreet wit. A pedestrian-crossing signal – a hand that switches colour between red and white – offers its own winking commentary.

Out of nowhere, a white man shows up with a picnic hamper. Alexander Eliot cuts a hilariously disconcerting figure as Mister. He has a cartoon naivety – his body language is a hoot. But is he for real? Moses looks menacingly languid while Mister unpacks his basket and Kitch rapturously helps himself. It is only when the same actor (Eliot) reappears as a policeman that we have the picnic rug pulled out from under us. The unnerving likelihood seems to be that the white man’s benign act was a mirage.

This play, originally staged in Chicago by the Steppenwolf company, caused controversy when an American critic suggested the brutality of the white policeman was a racist slur. But Nwandu’s understanding of racism, her ironic exploration of language as a racial weapon, is brilliantly nuanced. And I do not understand how anyone could quarrel with the message implied and delivered by gunfire: stop the random killing of black men. And yet, at the same time, she encourages the audience to dream of the day when a play such as hers might be rewritten in hope.

Love, Loss & Chianti (which I saw in preview) is a new two-part dramatisation by Christopher Reid of his celebrated poems. The first half, The Scattering, is about the life and death of his wife, Lucinda (it won the 2009 Costa prize). The second is The Song of Lunch, which was made into a BBC film in the same year, starring Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. At one point in The Scattering, Reid refers to his “cumbersome retrospective mood”, and although there is nothing cumbersome about his writing, it proves a bordering-on-impossible task for director Jason Morell to make retrospection theatrical (even if Lucinda was an actress). The Scattering comes across as a poetry-reading struggling to become a play – a half-baked metamorphosis.

Rebecca Johnson and Robert Bathurst in Love, Loss & Chianti.
Rebecca Johnson and Robert Bathurst in Love, Loss & Chianti. Photograph: Alex Harvey-Brown

Robert Bathurst looks mournfully dashing in possession of a red silk scarf and all his lines (a feat – he’s speaking for almost two hours). With Rebecca Johnson, a bright-eyed presence, he does his bereft best to honour the text. But there is a difficulty about what they should be doing with their bodies. On the page, past and present effortlessly combine. On stage, what is said often seems unfastened from what is being done.

The show is not helped by Charles Peattie’s animated playschool projections that, although skilfully executed, fail to illuminate Reid’s writing (except in illustrating the line from The Song of Lunch about being “on the edge of a shadow world”). A more literal homage might have worked better – ideally including Lucinda’s homemade Turkish trousers (as described in the poem) and all the frumpy details of the revamped Italian restaurant in Soho where the poet meets his old flame. But at least because The Song of Lunch is more theatrical than The Scattering; it is more comfortable to watch. And you can see Bathurst exulting in the poem’s has-been lyricism, entertaining self-pity and ruthless decanting of the past.

In Günter Grass’s classic postwar novel The Tin Drum (1959), retrospection serves the theatre better. This fantastical epic is not obvious material for a one-man show, which makes the achievement of Berliner Ensemble director/adapter Oliver Reese and actor Nico Holonics all the more staggering. The evening intends to disturb – and it does. Holonics, in a tour-de-force performance, creates the world of a boy who decides against growing up. Two hours in the company of this arrested character is demanding and scary. Being in the audience is like doing a nightmare babysit.

Nico Holonics in The Tin Drum.
‘A tour-de-force performance’: Nico Holonics in The Tin Drum. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

But the image of Oskar Matzerath dressed up in lederhosen and harlequin knee socks strutting his way through brattish monologues is unforgettable. Holonics often lowers his voice to an obnoxious hush. His gap-toothed laugh is mirthless. His scream famously shatters glass. There is nothing cute about his cutsie way of waving goodbye – he contaminates childhood, he scorns it. On the wilder shores of his reminiscences he shares a traumatised world in which eels are drawn forth from the dead heads of horses and oral sex is described as a guzzling of vanilla – confectioner’s porn – and in which fascism rules. He is a lethally unconscientious objector. At times, all the dysfunctionality of the 20th century seems to move through this lonely drummer boy whose drumming is, as often as not, in his head.

Temi Wilkey, in her debut, The High Table, brings us light relief. She approaches the subject of gay marriage between Nigerian women – and the traditional opposition to it – with unpushy intelligence. Her idea of getting the ancestors in on the act is a brainwave – their wrangling makes enjoyable theatre. Her subplot in which Uncle Teju (Stefan Adegbola) is persecuted for being a gay man in Lagos is particularly moving. The play is shaggy in parts and Daniel Bailey’s exuberant production could do with trimming. But this show, with its terrific cast, lifts the heart. And Mohamed Gueye’s astonishing drumming alone (the second drummer of the week) makes it worth getting a seat at this table.

David Webber (Segun), Jumoke Fashola (Mosun), Stefan Adegbola (Teju) and Ibinabo Jack (Leah) in The High Table at the Bush theatre.
David Webber (Segun), Jumoke Fashola (Mosun), Stefan Adegbola (Teju) and Ibinabo Jack (Leah) in The High Table at the Bush theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Star ratings (out of five)
Pass Over ★★★★
Love, Loss & Chianti ★★
The Tin Drum ★★★★
The High Table ★★★

Pass Over is at the Kiln, London, until 21 March; Love, Loss & Chianti is at the Riverside Studios, London, until 17 May; The High Table is at the Bush, London, until 21 March


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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