“Atim and Akuwudike particularly stand out as being well cast and effortlessly engaging”
Set against the dark, urban landscape of modern-day Los Angeles, ‘Time is Love’ is Chè Walker’s new play making its British premiere this year at the ever-intriguing and inventive Finborough Theatre. It’s a tense, urban noir, swerving in and out of lap dancers’ dressing rooms, brothels and police interrogation rooms, making effective use of video and an edgy, percussive score by Olivier award-winning Sheila Atim (who also stars).
Flicking between 2016 and 2019, we are made aware of an impending “catastrophe” by narrator-cum-prostitute Serena (Sasha Frost) that will rock the lives and of Blaz (Gabriel Akuwudike) and his long-term girlfriend Havana (Jessica Ledon). Back in 2016, Blaz is imprisoned for three years, taking the fall for childhood friend and partner-in-crime Karl (Benjamin Cawley). In the three years that follow, Karl and Havana jostle for Blaz’s heart, with Havana ‘playing away from home’ with crooked cop Seamus (Cary Crankson). Sheila Atim’s lap-dancer Rosa offers comfort and wisdom through the smog.
Filled with excellent acting, the ensemble’s characterisations create a convincing image of the Los Angeles underworld. Atim and Akuwudike particularly stand out as being well cast and effortlessly engaging. However, the production has some failings that centre around Walker’s script and direction. A large white screen plays canvas to filmed footage that underscores most scenes, but too often the footage simply shows us the action of the scene ‘on location’ and can be distracting. More interesting is when we see Havana enact violent revenge on an unsuspecting lap-dancer. When film shows us something we cannot see on stage, it really proves its worth.
Too many scenes are created by two characters entering a space and talking. This sometimes works, but with a script littered with lengthy, exposition-heavy monologues, it is easy to lose interest. Walker has a unique take on a classic tale of betrayal, and the world he creates is certainly intriguing, but the focus seems uncertain at times. Los Angeles is a patchwork of people and stories, but we need more as an audience to find these disparate characters worth our time.
Overall, Walker has gathered a stunning ensemble and built a convincing, urban world on stage, but currently it just falls short of being brilliant.
“Stella Gonet is magnificent as Sister Aloysius, her mounting obsession and rage are compelling”
It’s easy to see why John Patrick Shanley’s play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Play in 2005. The writing is assured and Shanley builds the tension arising from the moral ambiguities of the story with consummate skill. Gripping and thought provoking, this powerful play makes the audience question preconceptions and judgements, keeping us all in doubt.
The setting is a church school in the Bronx in 1964. The school is run by a stern, conservative nun, Sister Aloysius. The first line in the play, ‘what do you do when you’re not sure?’, is spoken by Father Flynn, the popular and progressive parish priest. Sister Aloysius disapproves of Father Flynn and when Sister James, a young nun, tells her that he met with Donald Muller, the school’s only African-American student alone, her suspicions are aroused. On extremely tenuous evidence she becomes convinced that Flynn has abused the boy and determines to confront him.
Having delivered his first sermon on the subject of doubt, Flynn delivers his second on the evils of gossip, using a parable to illustrate his point. Sister James is troubled, already undermined by Sister Aloysius she want to believe Father Flynn, but is mired in doubt and uncertainty. When Donald’s mother is called in to meet with Sister Aloysius she reacts angrily to her suspicions of Father Flynn and is determined that her son must stay at the school, it’s a big thing for him to be the first and only black student there, and he has the chance of getting into a good high school if he stays. She is pragmatic, ‘that’s the way it is.’
Che Walker’s direction deliberately leaves the audience unsure. He said ‘I want them to be completely unsure. I would have failed if they walked out with any certainty about anything.’
As audience members we are confronted by our preconceptions. Who should we believe? With two of the greatest scandals befalling the Catholic church in the 20th and 21st centuries being child abuse by priests and the damage done to countless children who were educated by nuns in rigidly conservative and punitive religious schools, we are confronted by uncertainty. Like sister James we are caught in the middle.
The cast is strong. Stella Gonet is magnificent as Sister Aloysius, her mounting obsession and rage are compelling. It is not easy to sympathize with her character, but is she right? Father Flynn, played with charm and warmth by Jonathan Chambers is much easier to like, but does this make him easier to believe? Flynn keeps us guessing, although he is quick to anger and is thrown off balance by Sister Aloysius’ actions. Chambers makes us want him to be good. Sister James is sweet and wants to teach her class with love and kindness. Clare Latham is touching in the role, dealing with the dilemma of trying to conform to Sister Aloysius’ idea of what a teacher should be and with her distress over the possibility of Father Flynn’s guilt. She does come to a decision about his actions, and we feel her gentle certainty. Jo Martin is not on stage for long as Mrs Muller, but she makes a real impact. Her portrayal of a strong, concerned mother, who worries for her son and becomes furious with Sister Aloysius gave us a real, rounded character in a short time. When she went off stage the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
As we left the theatre after the standing ovation, the air was buzzing with speculation … Did he do it, or didn’t he … ?
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Paul Nicholas Dyke
DOUBT, A PARABLE
is at the Southwark Playhouse until 30th September