After the enjoyable production of Shaw's WIDOWERS' HOUSES earlier this year, it was revival time again at the Orange Tree Theatre as we went to see their latest offering from the neglected plays of yesteryear, Mustapha Matura's PLAY MAS, first staged in 1974.
PLAY MAS was first seen at the Royal Court with a stellar cast including Norman Beaton, Mona Hammond, Stefan Kalipha and Rudolph Walker, and not only transferred to the West End but also won Matura an Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright award; and now 41 years later it gets it's first revival, and at the Orange Tree no less.
As I noted for WIDOWERS' HOUSES, the audience at the Orange Tree appears to have a very specific demographic (mature, white, clubby) but it was good to see a diverse audience for this play. Being in a theatre which is only three rows deep presents all sorts of challenges - especially if the lights are turned up to 11 to suggest the tropical atmosphere of Trinidad. In other words, it was very easy to start nodding off. But honestly, cast - I did enjoy the play!
The play is set in Port of Spain, Trinidad in the late 1950s: Samuel, a young Trinidadian is the overworked assistant/dogsbody in a tailor shop owned by an Indian mother and son. Although feckless and picked on by Miss Gookool, Samuel is indulged by Ramjohn who takes time to explain the trade to him and chat about "flims". However when Miss Gookool fires him for wanting to attend a political rally for Dr Eric Williams' PNM Independence party, Ramjohn does nothing to help him.
Soon afterwards, with Port of Spain exploding with noisy bedlam during the annual carnival or Play Mas (Masquerade), a drunk Samuel crashes into the Gookool's shop in fatigues, brandishing an automatic rifle and threatening to kill them as class enemies. Ramjohn protects his terrified mother and pleads for their lives only for Samuel to laughingly reveal that he is joking. However Miss Gookool dies from a heart attack and Ramjohn is driven to despair by the increasingly nightmarish parade of visitors.
We then jump to 1963, the PNM party are now in power and have secured Independence from Great Britain. Samuel has risen through the ranks to become the new Commissioner of Police and adapts quickly to the corrupt life endemic to this position of power. He has also acquired a nagging, social-climbing wife who demands all that privileges she think she deserves.
The irony is that the government now face a new wave of student rioters, angry at the PNM's wholehearted flooding of the country with American expansionism. Increasingly desperate to show his US backers he can deliver security, Samuel threatens to cancel his once beloved Mas to stop any public show of dissent and even tries to recruit former friend Ramjohn to be a spy among his neighbours.
I enjoyed Matura's use of ironic contrasts to Samuel's progress to power: his former love of Hollywood movies replaced by his attending European foreign-language films to show his new status in life; his former shabby outfit in the tailor-shop now replaced by expensive imported suits; his blindness to replacing one colonialist power - Great Britain - with another - the USA and ultimately his use of the Mas festivities to hide a darker purpose.
Seun Shote was excellent as Samuel, going from the clueless assistant to the equally clueless Commissioner while suggesting the insecurity of a man promoted above his ability and aware it could all come crashing down at any minute.
Director Paulette Randall elicits fine performances from Melanie La Barrie as the bossy Miss Gookool, Victor Romero Evans as the chancer Frank who makes it big when the Americans come to town and Llewella Gideon in two contrasted roles of religious females. I felt though that Johann Myers faded into the background too easily as the hapless Ramjohn.
I felt Randall's best work was in the two middle acts - there was a tangible air of unease in Ramjohn's nightmarish Mas night and a great satirical edge to the comedy of Samuel's delight in power. However the final act seemed oddly misjudged. I suspect Matura is at fault too with a too-sudden shift in tone, but Randall had so much happening on the limited stage area that the intended powerful ending actually felt mistimed and cack-handed.
On the whole however, I enjoyed the production and the Orange Tree are to be congratulated again on a long-overdue revival.