It hardly needs saying that Leave Taking is an inspired piece of programming for the Bush Theatre. Though first performed in 1987, this tale of a first generation Jamaican immigrant and her two daughters’ attempting to come to terms with their heritage and national identity speaks clearly to the 2018 Windrush scandal. The characters’ experience of giving up everything to come to a new country and being met with hatred and discrimination is all too familiar for the many Brits who recently found themselves threatened with deportation after living here for decades. This production is a powerful vindication of theatre as an empathetic force, putting a human face on political turmoil.
Leave Taking is the debut play from Winsome Pinnock, described by The Guardian as “the godmother of Black British playwrights”. It is the first play by a black woman to be performed at the National Theatre in 1994. Enid (Sarah Niles) loves her adopted country, but it doesn’t love her back. She and her daughters Del (Seraphina Beh) and Viv (Nicholle Cherrie) find themselves alienated from their Jamaican heritage, yet struggle to identify with their new home. “These girls ain’t English like them newsreader who got English stamp on them like the letters on a stick of rock,” says Enid’s friend Brod (Wil Johnson); “These girls got Caribbean souls”. When Enid’s mother dies back in Jamaica, the three women feel even more adrift. “She was the last of our grandparents,” Viv says. “Imagine that, a whole generation gone and we never met any of them. Never even seen a photograph”.
Director Madani Younis’s revival is thrillingly contemporary. From the throbbing bass of its reggae soundtrack to the sombre raindrops flooding the stage as Enid remembers her old home, the production is vital and bold. What’s most surprising is how much of a communal experience Leave Taking is. The cast’s hot-blooded performances create an electric atmosphere in this minimalistic, in-the-round staging. Many plays are lucky to get a few polite chuckles, yet Leave Taking gets belly laughs and loud murmurs of assent when Brod blames the UK for Jamaica’s poverty.
The production is very funny, but the characters’ pain runs just as deep. Johnson plays the permanently inebriated Brod with cartoonish excess, yet is just as effective during his character’s quieter, more serious moments. Most heartbreaking is the younger women’s refusal to listen when Enid and Brod reveal intimate details about their shared past. When Brod tells Del how her father used to beat Enid, her response is “I don’t wanna know”. When Viv complains that Enid never tells her anything about her past, it’s probably because Viv won’t listen.
The two older women in the play are played with a quiet pain and dignity by Niles and Adjoa Andoh. Of Enid’s children, Beh gives a more convincing performance than Cherrie, yet on the whole the actors make this production overflow with vitality. Just as there is a slightly heightened quality to Pinnock’s writing – familial ties are put to the test and national identity is fiercely debated in nearly every scene – these characters have big feelings which were all reflected back by an involved audience.
It’s almost depressing to think how many of the Black British hardships Pinnock identified back in 1987 are still relevant. Viv’s complaints of a whitewashed school reading list (“No matter how hard I search for myself in them books, I’m never there”) and Brod’s lack of security after being threatened with deportation (“Secure what? Till them change them mind again?”) show few signs of going away. Yet, mercifully, you’re much more likely to see stories like Enid’s in theatres than you were 31 years ago when Leave Taking premiered. That’s good news for all theatregoers.
Leave Taking is playing at the Bush Theatre until 30 June
Photo: Helen Murray