Chris Urch’s Bruntwood award-winning second play is an example of an excellent script translated into a stunning performance by truly fine acting – no gimmicks, no flashy lighting design or intricate set, nothing to hide behind. The Rolling Stone, focusing on Uganda’s anti-gay laws, is a riveting family drama that seizes its audience immediately with the pressures and fear of this very real situation.
The play’s title itself emerges as a symbol of dread; it takes its name from the Kampala newspaper that, for a few months in 2010, published the names and photos of local men thought to be gay, resulting in threats, broken families, banishments and lynch-mob killings. It’s a fate that gay 18-year-old Dembe (Fiston Barek) is desperate to avoid – yet he is equally, desperately in love with Sam, who is half-Ugandan but has been raised in Northern Ireland.
Dembe is sparky and likeable, dedicated to his family but also secure in his knowledge of his own sexuality. Barek gives a wonderful performance as the charming teenager who becomes torn between familial and romantic love, and between the various pressures weighing on his young shoulders – family, religion, a career, love, the law, his community’s own sense of justice… Combined with the oppressive heat that is so often referenced, the audience has a powerful sense of the weight of expectation on Dembe and all the characters we see, creating a stifling, scorching atmosphere that is utterly gripping.
Barek’s portrayal is matched by his co-stars: as his brother, pastor Joe, Sule Rimi is electric in his oscillating authority and anguish. His rage and determination are beautifully offset by moments of vulnerability and doubt. Faith Omole gives a scene-stealing performance as Dembe’s sister Wummie, shifting from sweet playfulness to despair as the unwelcome realities of their situation hit home.
Urch’s depiction of this Ugandan community, so far from his own in many senses, is impressive and obviously impeccably researched. There is a sense of urgency in this narrative – it is a story that must be told, that we must listen to. Yet Urch manages not to censure individuals as well as beliefs: some of the views that Joe articulates are so shocking as to the make audience both gasp and almost laugh out of astonishment, but we do not recoil from him as a character. At other times Urch and Rimi create a sympathetic figure, as Joe feels the expectation of his community, the legacy of long-held beliefs and the complete faith in his god.
However, we also sympathise with Julian Moore-Cook’s Sam, the initially chirpy boyfriend who struggles to come to terms with what they are up against and with Dembe’s inability to confess the truth to his family. The Rolling Stone is an intense, searing and deeply moving production, perfectly staged in the round in the small space of the Orange Tree. After his triumphant debut with Land of Our Fathers, Urch’s writing continues to impress and I look forward to seeing more of his work on the London stage.
The Rolling Stone is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 20 February. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website.