Roy Williams is not shy about his intent to write a ‘huge family epic’. The play is indeed sprawling and teeming with important ideas across three generations featuring a mother who travelled to the UK on HMT Empire Windrush and her daughters and grandchildren.
At the centre of the play (and literally centred on stage under a sort of giant Alexa column in Libby Watson’s nifty set that evokes both a grand drawing room of a Chekhovian country manor and the chic Terence Conran furnishings of a modern, affluent home, with the circular lighting framing the central column, top and bottom) are two 50-something sisters, Dawn (Cherrelle Skeete) and Marcia (Suzette Llewelyn).
When it comes to their love lives, they mirror one another – frustrated, underappreciated and longing to be really seen and profoundly loved. But their professional paths have diverged. Marcia is a QC at the top of her game. We don’t learn much about what Dawn does for a living, but we know that she carries a lot of trauma from the murder of one of her sons. Dawn’s partner is Tony, a musician, who seems to come and go, whereas Marcia is having an affair with Giles, a Member of Parliament. Before we meet the sisters, we meet Dawn’s son Jermaine (Ethan Hazzard) and some kind of likely dramatic complexity involving his love life is foreshadowed. Meanwhile, up the 17 steps of the sweeping staircase, is Dawn and Marcia’s elderly, and not long-for-this-world, mother – off-stage and with little impact for most of Act One.
Whilst Williams has chosen an interesting and meaty topic about what it is to be Black and British (in contrast to being Black in Britain) and how struggles and trauma run through generations, the first act is cluttered with too many ideas and too much theatrical business. By throwing so many intellectual balls at us, it becomes difficult to catch and hold any of them long enough to ponder the point. We are expected to believe that a top silk will recklessly risk her entire career for a drunk MP who is married to another woman. As this plot device is essential to moving the dramatic action forward, Williams owes it to us to make us believe she might just do that because ‘he noticed’ her as Marcia explains duelling with her sister as they command Alexa to play music; then pause; then play. The Alexa war is a very funny bit of business, but it actually gets in the way of building credibility around the motives of Marcia’s character. Dawn criticises her sister for being enamoured with a very average-looking white politician and Marcia explains that he told her she was ‘beautiful,’. If the point Williams wants to make is that an incredibly accomplished professional woman who has emerged, against considerable odds from a rough south London school to become a leading barrister, still feels so unconfident, lonely and invisible that she would take a risk with an entirely predictable catastrophic outcome, then he needs to invest the time in making us believe it. Instead, there is a lot of theatrical stage business and energy but not enough focus. He is also cramming in a racist murder of Dawn’s son and sexual jealousy over Tony and his conduct ‘back in the day’ as well as allegiances to being on ‘the front line’ against the police. All of these topics are fascinating in their own right, but they largely don’t coalesce into a coherent dramatic narrative. And when they do, they, tend to hang around some pretty clunky plot devices.
Nonetheless, The Fellowship features some excellent performances: newcomer Hazzard makes an impressive debut along with Skeete who had to step in with just a week’s warning when the previous Dawn was taken ill. Yasmin Mwanza, was also cast very recently to take over the two roles in which Skeete had originally been cast, and impressed me with her comic and dramatic timing and movement.
Williams has written some compelling speeches, especially for Dawn who, motivated by a Kylie Minogue track, declares her personal preferences and explains her own needs, as a person thus freeing herself from a ‘community’ identity she’s worn heavily for years. However, the transformation felt rushed for the sake of dramatic convenience and not like she’s experienced an epiphany derived from the play’s action. By shaking off a commitment to purity as someone on the ‘front lines’ , it felt like the ending of Grease when Sandy transforms for her love of Danny (John Travolta features in the dialogue as it happens). Did her sister have to lose status as a QC and face jail for Dawn to let go of generations of trauma and accept the loss of her son, Daryl, as well as accept her other son’s new girlfriend, Simone (Rosie Day)?
Despite being densely written and textured and sometimes rushed, there were also moments that felt overly long and milked. The time it takes Dawn to descend 17 stairs – when we already knew what had happened – only wreaked more havoc on the pacing which sped by in parts and dragged in others. Essentially, The Fellowship feels like an interesting draft of a play with too many ideas and not enough characterisation leaning on hackneyed and soapy plot devices. Were it to choose its focus and really develop the interior worlds and motivations of the characters who best tell that story, it would have offered more substance to savour. As it is, the number of ideas per minute make this a dramatic train that is very hard to board and ride throughout. The Fellowship is not a train-wreck, however, because its design and performances are strong but, given the scale of its intellectual ambition, it’s a frustrating journey.
Review by Mary Beer
Children of the Windrush generation, sisters Dawn and Marcia Adams grew up in 1980s London and were activists on the front line against the multiple injustices of that time. Decades on, they find they have little in common beyond family… Dawn struggles to care for their dying mother, whilst her one surviving son is drifting away from her. Meanwhile, high-flying lawyer Marcia’s affair with a married politician might be about to explode and destroy her career. Can the Adams sisters navigate the turmoil that lies ahead, leave the past behind, and seize the future with the bond between them still intact?
The world premiere of Roy Williams’ The Fellowship, directed by Paulette Randall, is, by turns, an electrifying, hilarious, gripping tale set in modern Britain.
The cast includes Rosie Day (Instructions for a Teenage Armageddon, Southwark Playhouse; Microwave, National Theatre), Ethan Hazzard (Raised by Wolves, HBO; The Long Song, BBC One), Trevor Laird (Small Island and One Man, Two Guvnors, National Theatre), Suzette Llewellyn (Running with Lions, Lyric Hammersmith; EastEnders, BBC One), Yasmin Mwanza (Spider-Man: Far from Home, Marvel Studios, Sony and Columbia Pictures; Girls, Talawa Theatre Company) and Cherrelle Skeete (Fun Home, Young Vic; The Phlebotomist, Hampstead Theatre).
The Fellowship is a T.S. Eliot Foundation commission.
A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE WORLD PREMIERE
BY ROY WILLIAMS
DIRECTED BY PAULETTE RANDALL
21 JUN – 23 JUL 2022