Ethnic identity, interwar tensions and the fragility of human relationships are amongst the topics Edson Burton concerns himself with in Raising Kamila. Yet whilst these themes intertwine for moments of interest, the challenge of juggling them is one which often leaves characters and their motivations feeling overly laboured.
African orphan Kamila (Nadia Williams) and Oscar, her mentor (Chris Bianchi), sail the Rhine saving for a better future in the multi-cultural metropolis of New York. Their relationship is placed under strain by the arrival of a houseguest in the form of Lukas (Hugh Holman), a young painter who proves to be ominously virile, intellectually and otherwise. Considering the fairly straightforward premise, exposition and character-establishment ought to have been brisk and economical, but the credit for any interest generated in the first half hour goes to Bianchi, whose stingingly sarcastic delivery only almost compensated for the lacklustre plotting.
Once the trio have been plied with Riesling, the dialogue picks up an encouraging spark which the cast noticeably seize upon: Holman’s Lukas thinly veils an anti-Semitic menace behind his wide smile, and Williams throws herself into Natasha Fewings’ frenzied choreography. However, frequent use of dance throws up another of the production’s messier aspects; though Laura Clark’s disordered and constrictive design works well to conjure the claustrophobia of the tugboat, it also lends a sense of unease to movement around the space. This proves cumbersome for actors and audience alike, and leaves many instances of intended sexual tension feeling more awkward than erotic.
These issues aside, director Amanda Horlock does her best to invest the piece with significance through the creation of strong onstage images, which go some way to unearthing the latent appeal of Burton’s uneven text. The production is by no means unwatchable, far from it: with judicious cutting and refinement of scope, Raising Kamila could well make for a thoughtful evening. As it stands, it is a bumpy ride with an abrupt ending, where for each scene that shows real promise there is another which is only memorable for its wasted potential.
Raising Kamila is playing at the Alma Tavern and Theatre until 12 November. For information and tickets, see the Alma Tavern and Theatre website.