Monday, 22 February 2016

FOUR star review for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the National theatre

WITH the diversity row raging within the entertainment industry the National Theatre has played a blinder with a revival of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Set in a recording studio in Chicago in 1927 it centres around the formidable Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, a diva with a considerable amount of attitude who has deigned to come with her musicians to the studio to lay a few tracks, one being Black Bottom.
Her entourage consists of her much younger girlfriend and her nephew who has the most unfortunate stammer rendering him at times speechless.
She is determined to record the song that bears her name her way and despite her nephew's impediment and to his considerable embarrassment, she demands he record the introduction to a song – to the despair of her manager and the studio owner.
The four musicians - Slow Drag, Levee, Toledo and Cutler - arrive early and are ushered into an underground rehearsal space to practice before Ma Rainey arrives.
It is here we see how their talents and lives are exploited through the conversations they have with each other.
Indeed the banter between the four of them is the highlight of the show. Genial, agreeable, hostile, jokey and honest, they chat about their lives, their aims, ambitions and plans for the future. They rib Levee about his new white shoes and Toledo for his intellect.
It is in these cramped surroundings that the ambitious and hot headed Levee has a spat with the elder statesman of the group, Toledo about wanting to sell his music to the studio boss and about which version of the song they should play.
Inevitably tensions boil over – not just downstairs but upstairs too – and the second half is a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions with laughter mixed with tears.
It is beautifully put together and with a stunning set it is also blessed with a stellar cast. Sharon D Clarke is extraordinary as Ma Rainey and she is ably supported by Stuart McQuarrie as the studio owner and Finbar Lynch as her manager.
However it is the ensemble of Clint Dyer, Giles Terera, OT Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati as her backing band who steal the show.
It is a wonderful revival but one that reminds us of the divisions that existed then and those that still do now.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is on at the National Theatre until Wednesday, May 18. Tickets from £15. Visit or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

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