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Review of Soul at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

A few professional critics have had quite a bit of a downer on the new play Soul by Roy Williams exploring the hidden story behind the death of great Marvin Gaye. Their bugbear, the lack of his original music within the play. One even resorted to giving Soul a two star rating. However with all due respect to their opinion, as that is what a critic at the end is doing every time, they are clearly wrong to take this single omission and use it to beat this singularly brilliant play with it. There was enough explanation of lack of music ahead of debut and any professional critic would have seen it. Soul is not about Gaye's music, it is about his life, and his eventual tragic death.

I have had one experience with Roy Williams' work before, Days Of Significance, and I freely admit it was one of the most vicious and hideously repellent plays I have seen. Oh how different Soul is, a gorgeously worked piece, filled with heart and love of the story it is depicting. Told through the eyes of Marvin's sisters, Jeanne (Petra Letang) and Zeola (Mimi Ndiweni), standing proud at the front of the stage often, moving us through the story of his early life. It is a style that takes a little getting used to at first and I was genuinely concerned that this wasn't going to work for me for awhile. However as more of the story begins playing out with the cast and less through the telling of the sisters, I became more absorbed in the tale being told.

The Gay family is clearly a devoutly religious one, however as the play tells us, they are also a hotbed of emotionally troubled ones. Marvin Gay Senior is played with total realism and wide-eyed stare by Leo Wringer. Through those eyes you can almost see the unstable nature of the character coming through, mixing god-fearing, brutality at Marvin Jnr, womanising and a slightly more rare clothing hobby, Wringer literally takes his character through a literal wringer of emotion. He is brilliant and is is surrounded by an exceptional cast as well.

Perhaps no one better is Adjoa Andoh as the stability of the Gay household, Alberta. Without her input you could very imagine that this family would have derailed completely much earlier. She is for the best part the one you feel the most sorrow for through the story, trapped in a dysfunctional family and trying desperately to make it work, while Marvin Snr freely brings his lovers home and beats his family, she remains dedicated to making this family work.

However the roles of Marvin Gaye (Nathan Ives-Moiba) and Young Marvin (Keenan Munn-Francis) are the key ones, and these two bring everything that you would pretty much want. As young Marvin, Munn-Francis has a wonderfully innocent and bubbly personality at first, yet in that confrontation scene with his father, high impact as the boy visibly grows up before our eyes. As well as being a brilliant singer, in one scene he shows prodigious ball control talent in a quite brilliant scene. Very much a star performance.

Ives-Moiba literally becomes Gaye in his role, looking totally the part and travelling through the gamut of emotions from dramatic stirring love for Tammi Terrell (an incredible, but oh so brief performance from Abiona Omonua), to sorrow at loss, and building to those incredibly played out scenes confronting his father at the end. There is a scene following a death where Gaye throws himself into writing and this is not only expertly played by Ives-Moiba, but created brilliantly by movement director Anna Morrissey. One of the single best scenes I have seen in the Royal.

Perhaps also one of the best things I have witnessed in the Royal is the set from Jon Bausor (and the magical people of the Royal Theatre in crafting it). The ambition and skill that is being put into each and every Made In Northampton play puts many large touring productions in the Derngate to utter shame. During the first half the set is not only stunning to look at, but is also a living breathing creature, effortlessly drifting into the position required of the actors as scenes shift. I have seen few better and for scene changes, it is the most smooth ever. The second half it is not required to move, but just look stunning and realistic, this it does with ease. It is an absolute thing of beauty,

Director James Dacre is at his best, once again allowing the scenes to shift from location to location with no delay. Even allowing for the fact that there are some tremendously quick changes of locations required from the cast, everything still remains seamless. With the lack of original Gaye music (this is not ever a problem for me), it is left to the tremendously talented Royal & Derngate Community Choir. These on stage often during the first half and still visible but elsewhere for the second, bring emotion and heart to the production and their use really does bring a great deal to the show.

So without doubt one of the best of recent Made In Northampton offerings, telling a story of family tragedy in a grand style. Full of brilliant performances, wonderful music and a set that is one of the very best out there for the searing story to be played out on. Tremendous.

««««½


Performance reviewed: Thursday 26th May, 2016 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.

Soul runs at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 11th June, 2016 before moving to the Hackney Empire.

For further details visit the Royal & Derngate website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

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