The Long Song reveals ghastly imperial past with cussedness and a twinkle at CFT

REVIEW: The Long Song, Chichester Festival Theatre, October 1-23.

Thursday, 7th October 2021, 11:03 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th October 2021, 11:12 pm
Tara Tijani (as July) & Syrus Lowe (as Nimrod) in THE LONG SONG at Chichester Festival Theatre   Photo by Manuel Harlan
Tara Tijani (as July) & Syrus Lowe (as Nimrod) in THE LONG SONG at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo by Manuel Harlan

The world premiere of Suhayla El-Bushra stage’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song should have happened in the Minerva towards the end of the lost summer of 2020.

It’s finally happening now – and on the main-house stage instead.

And while it’s true that Charlotte Gwinner’s clever, absorbing and provocative production won’t necessarily convince you that the switch to the main house was the right move to make, it will certainly leave you delighted that such an important piece of the Season That Didn’t Happen has now been salvaged.

To be honest, the blurb didn’t actually make this sound the most appealing of evenings – effectively, a couple of hours of slavery failing to end in Jamaica 200 years ago.

But in the event, it’s a piece that quietly wins you over, drawing you into a world which appals – a world which Miss July is prompted to look back on thanks to the show’s slightly-contrived set-up.

It’s a contrivance, though, which comes with a major advantage. It means that Old July is present throughout, amid the story, her words conjuring onto the stage the events of her early life.

Llewella Gideon is wonderful in the part, all cussedness and twinkling charm as she relates a tale which really ought to have reduced her to cold fury.

Instead, she glosses over her time in the stocks – and that’s the power of her storytelling, recreating with wit, with selectivity and with the survival instinct which saw her through.

She survived slavery and she survived an equally awful era in which slavery masqueraded as some kind of false freedom.

We see the sheer ghastliness of the slavers, treating people as objects to be bullied and casually demeaned… until the new era unleashes a different kind of ghastliness, the hypocrisy and self-interest embodied by the awful Goodwin (excellent from Leonard Buckley).

In the midst of it all, Young July is used and abused abysmally while always retaining her fighting spirit – a truly impressive, remarkably assured professional debut from Tara Tijani, a young performer with genuine presence.

As for the staging, its cleverness is in its simplicity, though you can’t help wondering whether an extra edge might just have come from leaving it in the Minerva where it was originally intended.

You have to concentrate to penetrate the dialect, and just occasionally there are lines which just aren’t spoken clearly enough. Maybe that wouldn’t have been a problem in the Minerva.

And maybe it would have been better to have made us feel closer to this grisly moment in our shameful imperial past. It’s a powerful story powerfully told. The Minerva might just have taken it to the next level.

Which is, of course, all the part of the fascination. The fact is we aren’t going to know.