The very air is different. Bel Air, in fact. Danya Taymor’s phenomenal UK premiere production of Jeremy O Harris’s Daddy (2019) bounces off the stage with the flat glare of a Hockney pool painting. Indeed, there is a real, splash-making pool on stage: the front row of the stalls was wringing itself out in the interval. The white walls of the villa designed by Matt Saunders are hit with Day-Glo colour. Isabella Byrd’s lighting sharpens contours, transfixing a character in a pink glow or, as if painting with a brush, sending colour slowly down a figure from top to toe. It also makes things woozy, with ripples of watery shadows.
Harris describes his play as “a melodrama” but it feels more like a trance. There is no hypercharged action; the plot shimmers. Celebrated for his 2018 drama Slave Play, Harris here examines inheritance and ownership – of people and of works of art. The central figure, performed with magnetising intelligence and pirouetting elegance by Terique Jarrett, is a young black artist who makes disconcertingly floppy sculptures that sometimes look like dolls, sometimes like lifesize versions of friends. He is taken up – and in – by an older, wealthy white man whose walls are laden with Basquiats and who tells the artist he has legs “like Naomi’s”. The young man’s prospects are advanced but his personality risks being tainted by the relationship with this sexual mentor, given sinister inscrutability by Claes Bang. He looks as if he may be, well, booty.
It is an evening that cleverly mixes satire, psychology (too much of this in the closing half-hour) and sheer flourish. Crisp caricatures are exquisitely delivered: a poolside lounger – and serial hanger-on to rich blokes – squeals that she has never seen the handwriting of any man she has dated: “Anyone know how to read cursive?” More than one father is crucial: the man who abandoned the artist as an infant, as well as the sugar daddy. And let’s not forget God the Father: the artist’s mother (glorious Sharlene Whyte) is a big fan of His; she corkscrews her way around the stage, urging the affluent wastrels to have a good pray. Whyte has a gospel backing group who dip in and out of the pool in full surplices; George Michael’s Father Figure winds its way throughout the evening, evoking teachers, preachers and naked bodies. Lee Kinney’s sound design, which mingles the music with electronic hums and mobile chimes, is an essential part of the bright strangeness of the production; as if that air were vibrating.
Later this month, Harris is hosting a “Black Out” performance of Daddy, in which seats will be reserved for black spectators. The aim is to give black theatregoers the experience white audiences have routinely: of being in an audience that “looks like them”. I imagine Chinonyerem Odimba might look kindly on this idea. Her musical play Black Love is a celebration of the love between a brother and sister and a conjuring up of their affection for their dead mother. Above all, and at its most effective, it is an attack on a white girl who heaves her way into the lives of both siblings, having started an affair with the boy, and assumes she can squat there.
This does not always hang together. The music, by Ben and Max Ringham, is not used consistently; lines of the lyrics straggle; some of the dialogue is weighed down by therapy speak. Yet the attack – vibrantly voiced by Nicholle Cherrie as the sister, Roo, with Nathan Queeley-Dennis as her faltering brother, Orion, and Beth Elliott as the white Lois – is arresting, not least because the argument is not straightforward: Lois is not all villainness and her adversary has some interest in keeping her brother for herself. This is a salutary jolt.
There is no such disturbance in Alexis Zegerman’s The Fever Syndrome though. There’s a whole lot of shaking going on. The adolescent girl (performed with assurance by Nancy Allsop) whose medical condition gives the play its title is prone to sudden temperatures – and to fits. Her grandfather has Parkinson’s, and is played by Robert Lindsay with an unstoppable tremor in one hand. Lindsay, powerful as the wounded lion, doesn’t overdo this – though I would like to see a play in which Parkinson’s was characterised by its freezing as well as its trembles.
If only the audience’s expectations were as thoroughly shaken. Three generations of a family gather in a New York brownstone, coming together at the news of their father’s decline: of course they come apart. Lizzie Clachan’s design – a cross-section of rooms stacked not too neatly on top of each other – promises intricacy and incisiveness. In fact, too many expectations and promises are predictably flipped over. A son is confidently announced not to be coming: he arrives. The father, a pioneer of IVF, has made countless families happy; naturally, he has not made his own children feel loved. The money on which everyone is depending is… not completely dependable. There are a few whopping symbolic hints about childhood secrets.
Two of the sibs scrape around for sweets they hid as kids. The patriarch is haunted by a teenage version of his unhappy daughter, who dances around the stage and goes a bit bonkers most often in – of course – the attic. Mostly though, and damagingly for a play about buried feelings, difficulties are explicitly laid out, discussed – and finally, implausibly, wrapped up at the end. Some needling acting – particularly from beadily focused Lisa Dillon – is not enough to give Roxana Silbert’s lethargic production savour, or make this family’s wrangles reverberate. Harris’s pool captures more echoes.
Star ratings (out of five)
Black Love ★★★
The Fever Syndrome ★★