‘Is God Is’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Is God Is, Royal Court, 2021
Photo by Tristram Kenton

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This extremely singular American play is a violent, funny revenge trip across the US

I’m not sure ‘revenge comedy’ is a real genre, but it’s not a terrible description for ‘Is God Is’, US playwright Aleshea Harris’s wild-ride Royal Court debut that comes off like ‘Oedipus Rex’ shoved into a blender with ‘Natural Born Killers’, except the protagonists are a pair of Black twin sisters from the Dirty South, and it’s a comedy. Kind of.

Hard to follow? Not really once you step into Ola Ince’s thrillingly lurid production, which careens forwards at an irresistible pace. Fiery Racine (Tamara Lawrance)  and introverted Anaia (Adeleyo Adedayo) are twin sisters, physically scarred for life by the fire they assume claimed the life of their mother. That is, until they get a letter from said mum: the ever-brilliant Cecilia Noble is on disturbing form as a monstrous, fire-scorched shell of a women, who in Chloe Lamford’s typically bold design looks more like an effigy than a human and who has summoned them here so she can order them – in her ravaged, stentorian voice – to go and kills their father, the man who set fire to her. After the smallest of debates, Racine and Anaia assent, adding to the general Old Testament vibes by insisting on now referring to their unnamed mum as God (because she gave life to them).

Their journey west into the California hills brings them into contact with their dad’s addled former lawyer Chuck, their at-the-end-of-her-tether stepmum Angie, their twin half-brothers Riley and Scotch, and finally their actual father. Given the high body count has been heavily advertised, it’s not really a spoiler to say there aren’t many survivors at the end of all this. But the sundry killings are bleakly amusing, or wryly ironic, not actively tragic, while Racine and Anaia – played with an entertaining deadpan by Lawrance and Adedayo – bicker and bitch their way through the adventure with nary a shred of guilt.

‘It’s not a spoiler to say there aren’t many survivors at the end’

It’s a strange and exhilarating play that exists inside its own garish universe, frequently taking time out from the twins’ story to allow for wild asides from the smaller characters: particularly funny is Ernest Kingsley Jnr as Scotch, who is utterly self-absorbed with his own ho-hum poetry, and Vivienne Acheampong’s Angie, who reveals to us a barking mad plan to escape her life.

‘Is God Is’ is weighted with symbolism and potential meanings: are the twins breaking a cycle of violence against Black women? Are they perpetuating it? Are they defying America or are they just tiny cogs in it? Do they have any real agency or are they just instruments of a vengeful god?. Whatever the case, it’s hyper-smart and self-aware, riffing on and cleverly referencing millennia-worth of thrillers, from Greek tragedy to spaghetti westerns.

Still, for all the thrill of the trip, its mix of nihilism and glibness left me a bit cold, emotionally speaking. It is a deliberately unnaturalistic play that has no interest in tugging our heartstrings. But entertaining as the twins’ killing spree is, it feels somewhat meaningless: the deaths don’t bother them, and it doesn’t seem they’re supposed to bother us either. Most of the people they kill they don’t need to kill: their only real target is their father. When Mark Monero arrives as the nameless patriarch, he finally adds some real danger to the play, a palpable sense of toxic masculine menace, malevolently gaslighting his daughters. But though he threatens to turn into a sort of quasi-satanic counterpart to their mother, ‘Is God Is’ doesn’t have enough of an attention span to really go there, and ends up speeding on briskly. The whole 90-minute-play is like a furious joyride, pedal to the metal, but the journey might have felt more meaningful if it had taken its time just a little more.


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