Reginald Theatre, July 7
A brick makes a satisfying “clunk” as it slots into place in a wall being built. The Rolling Stone is like that wall, with British playwright Chris Urch slotting the parts of his plot together with similar precision. It is built with alternating layers of tension and rapport between his six characters, and as the wall grows the rapport is gradually squeezed out like excess mortar by the mounting weight of tension.
A witch-hunt play in the great tradition of The Crucible, The Rolling Stone is set in Kampala, the “witches” being homosexuals and the hunters conservative Christians. When the local newspaper takes to naming suspected gays, accusation swiftly comes to equal “guilt”, which may result in jail, threatened immolation or having one’s skull smashed in with a hammer. Being a relative of the accused means guilt by association.
Dembe (Elijah Williams) falls for fly-in-fly-out Sam (Damon Manns), just as Dembe’s older brother Joe (Mandela Mathia) is made pastor of the local church, on a mission to stamp out sin, with sodomy having pride of place on his list of priorities. It’s an ingenious set-up that allows Urch to have sex, love, religion, fear, family ties, hypocrisy and intolerance all clashing and colliding, with his artistry more than matching the precision of his craft.
The most cursory glance at the last 2,000 years of history shows that sins committed in the name of God would fill a million Bibles, and piety often poorly shrouds vast pits of fear and loathing. “Loving you has ruined me,” Dembe tells Sam, and that is before he fully understands the scale of the potential ruin.
Adam Cook’s production for the consistently impressive Outhouse Theatre adheres to the playwright’s instructions of a bare stage, which designer Isabel Hudson surrounds with monumental bluestone walls, like a crypt. Sometimes the movement seems excessively frenzied for a play that has a menacing stillness at its core, and similarly the work’s natural dynamic trajectory is upset by excessive shouting (notably from Williams) intruding on the first half, before the stakes have risen sufficiently to justify it. Nonetheless Cook’s is fine production with admirable casting, even if chinks routinely appear in the physical acting.
Williams is certainly not found wanting when the devastating climax arrives, and Mathia has a commanding presence as the fire-breathing pastor. Manns is consistently convincing as the Londonderry-raised Sam (with a Ugandan mother and Irish father), who thought he knew a thing or two about bigotry and hate, only to find Kampala is on another planet. Nonetheless he warns Dembe that even if he chooses to flee “that feeling of being other will never truly leave you”.
Zufi Emerson plays Wummie, sister to Dembe and Joe, with a chip on a shoulder the size of a jungle, and yet she probably grows the most in the play as her love for Dembe confronts her fearsome brand of Christianity. The siblings’ neighbour, Mama, is an even fiercer Christian, and Nancy Denis gives a compelling portrayal of how outward devoutness can dovetail with scheming and breathtaking hypocrisy. Her daughter Naome has been terrified into muteness, and Henrietta Amevor’s silent performance includes a particularly tender scene with Dembe when he takes her rowing on a lake – his preferred means of dating.
With some issues addressed and the performances settled, what is already a commendable production may come to fully match the quality of Urch’s work: a play that is a bold expose of virulent intolerance and the wider destructiveness of conservative religion.
Until July 21.