Packed into the hot and crowded Bush Theatre in the middle of July, the heat of Barbados that Robin Soans’ new play Perseverance Drive captures isn’t too big a stretch of the imagination. And with the audience close enough to see each bead of sweat on the actors’ brows, thanks to the traverse staging, this family drama makes for an intimate and intense couple of hours.
Perseverance Drive follows the Gillard family, who have travelled to Barbados for the funeral of their mother, Grace. Patriarch Eli (Leo Wringer) dominates proceedings, although he cannot keep a lid on the family tensions that bubble to the surface as they try to plan the service. When Eli’s estranged son Joshua (Clint Dyer) arrives, the feud only deepens as each brother tries to claim a right to speak at their mother’s funeral, each of their religious views clashing and old resentments rising. Needless to say, the funeral doesn’t go to plan and the family falls into disarray.
Four years later, back in Leytonstone, Eli is in ill health and rarely visited by his sons Nathan (Derek Ezenagu) and Zek (Kolade Agboke), whose religious duties constantly take precedence, painting a tragic portrait of the solitude that plagues many elderly people in Britain today. It falls to Joshua to care for Eli, though as Eli’s condition worsens the family begin to question if Joshua, who breaks their strict religious codes by being openly homosexual, is a fit carer. As Eli slips away, the family try desperately to resolve their tensions, though it transpires that because of each of their unique religious perspectives, their differences are irreconcilable.
Perseverance Drive is a rich family drama with engaging, well fleshed-out characters, particularly Joshua and the downtrodden Ruth (Frances Ashman), who really claim the audience’s sympathies. This domestic power-play speaks volumes about the organisation of religion and how easily respectability is mixed up with morality. These issues are bolstered by the strong and thoroughly engaging performances across the board, which truly show how tangled the fabric of this family – and our society – is. Each character’s journey is satisfying, each so thoroughly convinced of their own ‘rightness’, though Joylene (Akiya Henry) becomes a favourite for the supercilious extremism she reaches by the end: clad in white, boasting that her and Zek’s Christian sect, The Sword, has a following of over fifteen hundred. Another highlight worth mentioning is the gospel music, which the cast deliver with verve and soul.
Jamie Todd’s subtle and transmutable design very successfully captures the worlds of the play, from the Pentecostal Church in Barbados to Eli’s run-down home back in London, supported by Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting design that creates a sense of the stifling Caribbean heat that catalyses the family’s feuds.
Though it is fascinating to examine this family unit, particularly the constant shifts of allegiances and the hypocrisy that many of them practise – their piety at odds with their general goodwill towards each other – the play does at times feel like it covers well-trodden territory. It is a familiar dramatic conceit to see a family gathered in the wake of a death, disputing their mother’s will and hashing out long-held resentments, and Soans’s play doesn’t diverge much from this rubric. As a result, sometimes the play feels somewhat predictable, such as the interest Ruth and Errol develop in one another eventually culminating in a stolen kiss: overall there are few surprises in this traditionally conceived and structured production. Nonetheless, the many touching moments – such as Joshua’s eventual reconciliation with Errol – are incredibly successful, leaving you with the feeling that you’ve witnessed a momentous milestone in the lives of these people who are loveable and detestable in equal measure.
Perseverance Drive is playing at the Bush Theatre until 16 August. For more information and tickets, see the Bush Theatre website.