In the notes section at the beginning of Eleanor Burgess’s play, The Niceties, she writes, “both of these women can be noble… resist the temptation to think of only one of them as a mouthpiece for the truth”.
The women Burgess is referring to are Zoe (Moronke Akinola), a young African American college student, and Janine (Janie Dee), a white history professor at Zoe’s Ivy League university. Echoing David Mamet’s Oleanna, the play is a relatively simple concept; a meeting between Zoe and Janine to discuss Zoe’s thesis entitled ‘A Successful American Revolution Was Only Possible Because of the Existence of Slavery”. However, what starts as a purely academic conversation quickly becomes personal, as talks of grammar use and essay structure morph into an argument about racism between generations and in academia.
Burgess’ note at the beginning of the text becomes more and more pertinent as the play progresses. As the conversation heats up and Zoe and Janine become more passionate, tensions rise and it becomes difficult to choose which ‘side’ you are on. Both women make strong and weak arguments. One moment we agree with Zoe, the next with Janine. Although it does spark an inner debate about who’s side we, as audience members, are on, the play doesn’t quite reach thought-provoking. The angle of racism and privilege in the context of academia is interesting, but doesn’t feel fully explored. As the action plays out the characters become slightly lost in their dialogue (which is heavy and intense) and morph into stereotypical portrayals of a millennial and baby boomer. Zoe as the stubborn, radical, impassioned youth and Janine as the equally stubborn, conservative leaning ‘you can’t change the world overnight’ voice.
Although not particularly groundbreaking (at least for a typical liberal London audience) Matthew Ilife’s production of The Niceties is incredibly watchable, due to the strong performances by Dee and Akinola. Both have so much energy and presence so that even though the dialogue can be at times thick, it is never difficult to understand or dull.
The Niceties makes good use of the Finborough Theatre. It’s small scale combined with Rachel Stone’s claustrophobic set design add to the intensity of the play and help build up the tension, particularly in the second act.
Overall, The Niceties is an easy and engaging watch, which is no mean feat considering its subject matter and format.
The Niceties is playing Finborough Theatre until 26 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Finborough Theatre website.