THE NICETIES at The Finborough Theatre, Earls Court, London
Moronke Akinola as Zoe and Janie Dee as Janine: photo Ali Wright

A confrontation is taking place. Not on a street corner or in a gang fight but in the comfortable office of university History professor Janine, mentor to student Zoe. The former, respectful, experienced,somewhat patronising and resigned to the pendulum of politics; the latter aggressive, antagonistic and singular minded in her anger. In this two hander, the impact can be achieved only by the performance as the set, complete with pictures of revolutionaries on the wall (to include the telling portrait of George Washington), is static and because it is faced on three sides by the audience dictates that the two protagonists encircle in their sparring, not only for the effect of their argument but also for their accessibility to the audience.

This being said, the responsibility is placed firmly on the heads of acclaimed actor Janie Dee (Janine) and Moronke Akinola, who is making her professional debut in this European premier of Eleanor Burgess's The Niceties which was performed in Boston 2018 before transferring to New York and then across the pond to London's Finborough Theatre. Directed by Matthew Iliffe with the setting by Rachel Stone, this production plays here for a limited four week run.

Set during the final year of Obama's presidency in the US, the story features an ambitious black student, Zoe, who is meeting with the established white professor to discuss her paper on the American Revolution, with its focus on Black American slavery. Ferociously keen on her subject matter and believing passionately that it is deserving of merit because of its authenticity, she has submitted her first draft in the belief that it will be received positively by Janine. What begins as a polite conversation on syntax and accuracy develops into a political discussion and morphs into a heated accusatory debate, led in bullying fashion by the student herself. Zoe is bound to her beliefs and cannot accept the guidance of her tutor. She is often involved in campus protests and is keen to stir up radical revolution and blame, particularly against the complacent and sedate white liberal middle class of whom Janine is a part.

However, her thesis is based on conjecture and opinion and lacks firm evidence. For the sake of assessment it must be rewritten and researched more closely from texts, not Google, to assure authenticity. And this is where Zoe loudly and angrily objects, after all it is the narrowness of the predominately white establishment which dictates these boundaries. Arguably Zoe has breached the acceptable and formed her own boundaries by claiming that Janine and her ilk are racists, because they will not accept her thesis.

Political debate is dangerous and comprises mainly speculation and personal bias. On the one hand there is Janine whose family arrived in the United States from Poland and who believes in the democracy of this great nation. On the other hand there is Zoe who feels personally bruised and violated by the casually accepted racism that she has experienced in her short life. History is misguided and offers unfaithful depictions of Black slavery and this has impacted heavily on the African Americans. As we all know in our own political problems in the UK, there is rarely a meeting of minds, particularly when voices are raised and violence occurs. Rather than convince, such behaviour alienates. And this was so with Zoe.

Whilst we recognise that the young will rebel against the conventions of the older generation, Zoe's protest was too aggressive to be accepted. Too often she resorted to ad hominem in her willful and disparaging attempt to discredit the character profile of Janine.She went too far. Janine does enjoy the privilege of her class and undoubtedly holds a position of power, but the character assassination was exaggerated and this is where I found the arguments to be irritating,despite some reasonable points raised. The effect was alienation rather than empathy.

Both actors literally fill the stage with their presence. Akinola is forceful and performs with commitment and energy. Dee, complete with her Hilary Clinton mug, is entirely credible as the professor whose life is dedicated to her subject and whose reputation hinges on the balance. Whilst at times both infuriate, their performances are captivating and the audience is held to their interaction throughout.

Listings

The Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED
Dates: Tuesday 1 October- Saturday 26 October 2019
No performances on 4, 5, 25 October.
Evenings 7.30 pm, matinees 3 pm on Wed and Sat with additional matinees on Thurs 3 and 24 October.
Box Office: 01223 357851
www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Twitter: @NicetiesPlay 

     

 

     
  • Clare Brotherwood Elaine, just come across this. How lucky you got to see my lovely friend Janie. I'm trying to get down from Edinburgh to see it before it finishes but laid low at mo with hacking cough. See you're doing a good job down there.