Play Mas sees Orange Tree Theatre take on a Trinidadian tailor’s shop littered with fabric scraps and chalk-stencilled strips. Libby Watson’s design also includes hand-painted adverts and road signs above the stalls; the place is really given some colour. Calypso music plays you in, and the sunny atmosphere created sets you up perfectly for the start of the show.
Ramjohn Gookool (Johann Myers) and his assistant Samuel (Seun Shote) enter, bantering about boxes, American ‘flims’, and the intricacies of an eight-button suit. We warm to both Gookool’s ability to paint the good life with words and Samuel’s helpless attempt to save face instantly. The laugh counter rises quickly from here and is maintained comfortably for the most part of the show.
Both men are trying to build a life in which they can be their own masters. Unfortunately, bigger masters and the all-consuming politics surrounding the push for independence lurk threateningly in the shadows.
In addition, it soon transpires that Carnival, the island highlight of the year, is on the horizon, and with it, the opportunity to play Mas. To play Mas, one drinks a handsome dose of rum, dresses up in an expensive costume, and plays pranks on one’s neighbours. Predictably, real tragedy can and does result when the characters play Mas on stage, as a carefree attitude leads to careless harm. But this is powerfully mixed with the fear of military violence toward the end of the first act in one of the play’s strongest scenes between Gookool, his mother (Melanie La Barrie) and Samuel.
Centrally, Shote skilfully plays Samuel as a man who is always playing Mas: he never manages to fill a position of authority with conviction. The darker side to Carnival is inescapable, and even Gookool is provoked into the ceremony despite his religious abstinence.
The production’s broad brushstrokes occasionally leak into Paulette Randall’s direction itself. When Gookool’s mother has a heart attack, it is soon brushed over without enough gravitas, setting the tone of Gookool’s reaction out of kilter. And I was left feeling that we’d missed part of Samuel’s development, feeling that I didn’t understand how he had become the man in the play’s final image.
As a result, the play became a consistently energetic, vibrant and captivating experience, but one that failed to capture the tragedy of the events and politics that the central characters fall foul of. I laughed at every joke, but I left feeling that I had wanted more to be brought to tears.
Play Mas is playing at Orange Tree Theatre until 11 April. For tickets and more information, see the Orange Tree Theatre website.