Image above: Ruby Barker (L), Suzette Llewellyn (Centre L), Velile Tshabalala (centre R), Wil Johnson (R) in Running with lions at the Lyric
Running with Lions reminds me a bit of an Alan Ayckbourn play. The new play at the Lyric, Hammersmith, is a supremely well observed drama about a family – three generations of multi-layered emotions built from close proximity and shared experience.
It deals with unspoken emotional baggage which the younger generations refuse to leave unspoken and tensions between mother and daughter (twice over) as the characters seek to do what is right and what is best. It is also well structured, suspenseful, painful and funny.
This is a British Caribbean family in London rather than a white middle class family in Surrey or Buckinghamshire, but the building blocks are the same: Maxwell and Shirley, still in love but having lost the ability to communicate after so many years together; their granddaughter Imani, living with them because her single mother is in and out of mental institutions, doing well at school and desperate to fly the coop; Gloria, the mother battling bipolar disorder; all of them struggling to deal with the loss of their son / uncle / brother Joshua, who died.
Image above: Joshua (Nickcolia King-N’da) and Gloria (Velile Tshabalala) at the start of the play
It is unclear throughout much of the play what has happened to him. Running with Lions opens with Joshua (Nickcolia King-N’da) and Gloria (Velile Tshabalala) excitedly discussing their plans for the future: he is about to take off as an artist, having been offered his first solo show; she is about to leave home to set up home with her fiancé in her first flat.
When the scene changes we are 16 years on and Gloria is about to leave a clinic to come to her parents’ home. Fragile and uncertain, the last thing she wants is the big welcome home party her mother is planning. “What will I say to all our friends?” cries Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn) in dismay when Gloria makes it clear she’s having none of it. Imani (Ruby Barker) also feels let down when she rushes home, desperate to see her mother, to find she has already retired to her room.
When she does emerge Gloria can’t believe there’s no sign of Joshua in the house. None of his paintings or photographs are on view. And so the scene is set for the unintentional discord which inevitably follows from their clashing aims and outlooks.
Image above: Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn) and Maxwell (Wil Johnson) enjoying a moment
Wil Johnson is excellent as Maxwell, the pastor whose faith does not appear to be helping him with his grief. He loves to reminisce with a bit of old soul and rock steady on the record player.
Ruby Barker (famous from the character Marina Thompson she played in the Netflix series Bridgerton) is spot on as the supportive but independent teenager who wants to get on with her own life.
Velile Tshabalala portrays the frustration of trying to stay on top of things, maintain her independence and assert herself with the weight of a mental illness sending her from emotional highs to terrible lows of depression.
Nickcolia King-N’da inevitably has less of a role, being dead and all, but captures the hope of youth and has a poignant scene where he appears to his father after his death.
Image above: Imani (Ruby Barker) with grandmother Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn)
But it is Suzette Llewellyn who steals the show, with her matriarchal authority, bolstered by her sense of duty and moral rectitude, beset by guilt and regret.
I had no idea Running With Lions was playwright Sian Carter’s first play. It doesn’t feel like a first play. The theatre company is the Black British company Talawa. Director Michael Buffong once said the company would “make outstanding work which will truly diversify and shape the cultural life of the whole country.”
I think this play deserves to become a British classic. Running With Lions is on at the Lyric until 12 March.
Image above: Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn), Imani (Ruby Barker) and Gloria (Velile Tshabalala)
Photographs courtesy of Javin Morgan photography.
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