Red Velvet

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(10user reviews)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonAdrian Lester (Ira), Emun Elliot (Pierre Laporte)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonCharlotte Lucas (Ellen Tree)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonCharlotte Lucas (Ellen Tree), Amy Morgan (Betty Lovell)

A triumphant return for Adrian Lester as pioneering black actor Ira Aldridge

Interview: Adrian Lester on Ira Aldridge, the role he couldn't walk away from

As the diversity debate sparked by this year’s Oscars shortlist rages and people scrutinise the ignoble (and continuing) history of white actors cast in non-white roles, this revival of Lolita Chakrabarti’s ‘Red Velvet’ – based on real events – comes at just the right moment.

It’s Covent Garden, 1833. When the sudden illness of British stage legend Edmund Kean forces a re-cast of ‘Othello’, there’s consternation among the company when theatre manager Pierre LaPorte announces that the role will now be played by black American actor Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester). And how will audiences react?

There’s a strong dose of self-referentiality to this production, back as part of the Kenneth Branagh theatre company’s season at the Garrick. The staidness of the West End, its lack of originality or bravery – the play’s jabs at British theatre feel sharper on Charing Cross Road than at the Tricycle, where it debuted in 2012.

Director Indhu Rubasingham heightens this sensation by having the cast play over our heads and sometimes from the aisle. It opens up the space, as the actors linger uncertainly before the footlights. In many ways, the staging brings a nuance that the play – with its on-the-nose debates – lacks.    

But sometimes a whisper won’t do, when there are clearly people who still aren’t listening. Chakrabarti’s writing is funny and fiery, as the play shoots down fatuous arguments about the ‘artistry’ of playing ‘different’ as racist and elitist crap – a fig leaf for those who are fearful of change.

Of the cast, Alexander Cobb brings the humour as eager abolitionist Henry Forrester, while Charlotte Lucas (returning from the original production) imbues Ellen Tree, playing Desdemona, with strength and a growing openness to how theatre could be different, as ‘Red Velvet’ explores the cost of compromise.

And while the framing device of an old, embittered Aldridge about to play Lear is too overwrought to be effective, it doesn’t dull the raw emotion of Lester’s performance. He’s played the role since ‘Red Velvet’ first opened, but there’s no weariness here. He digs deep into the complexity of Aldridge, a proud, talented man, damned by his time.

In peerless metatheatricality, Lester has since played Othello at the National. But there’s something resonant and unsettling about watching him white-up in the final scenes here. Although set in the nineteenth century, the issues ‘Red Velvet’ deals with are far from past tense.

By: Tom Wicker


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Average User Rating

4.4 / 5

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1 of 1 found helpful

wow a superb piece of drama. Touching but very very funny in places. They drop the N word which sent gasps around the auditorium. Adrian Lester is superb as are the supporting cast around him. Must see theatre

1 of 1 found helpful

Charming, funny, infuriating, distressing and superbly acted; this play about actor Ira Aldridge, and his uphill battle as a black actor in the 1800s is by far one of the most captivating, entertaining and poignant plays I have seen in a while.

A potentially difficult subject that could go amiss, the use of comedy worked extremely well, and genuinely had the audience in stitches. Iras passion and charm were infectious, but, although he is clearly the most talented and innovative actor of the bunch, he is the one facing an uphill battle, making the injustice all the more senseless. Even despite his (highly enjoyable) relationship with his good friend and Covent Garden manager, Pierre all the odds are clearly stacked against him. Will his talent be enough? We all hope so…

A play about acting and the theatre, and what its place and purpose should be, as much as about racism, the setting of the small Garrick Theatre was also incredibly effective and enchanting. I would recommend this to anyone! 

1 of 1 found helpful

Expectations were far exceeded with this show. A brilliantly executed portrayal of the late, great, Ira Aldridge, who is revered as a pioneer of black for actors being accepted on to the stage and who undeniably shook the theatre world in the 19th century. In the beautiful Garrick Theatre, this show evoked a real sense of heartfelt emotion scattered throughout the humour and charm of the storyline. The cast were almost faultless in their delivery, Adrian Lester was phenomenal.  A must see for theatre lovers and a great insight into the history of a hero. 

Absolutely stunning piece of theatre by Lolita Chakrabarti in the elegantly refurbished Garrick Theatre. Adrian Lester shines as Ira Aldridge, African-American actor who took the European theatre scene by storm in the 19th century. The play takes specific focus on his engagement as Othello at Covent Garden - his appearance coinciding with the charged political atmosphere as Britain moves to abolish slavery - and public reception of seeing the famous Moor portrayed by a black actor on such a prestigious stage. The performance delivers the perfect mixture of wit, levity and serious reflection as only the best in theatre are able to. An absolute treat for theatre history buffs, but incredibly accessible to those looking to learn about a piece of history and enjoy a lovely evening out at the theatre. 

Funny, clever, beautifully acted, emotional and touching, and though set in the 19th Century issues it deals with be it race or gender are still relevant. I absolutely loved it, Adrian Lester is amazing, but actually the whole ensemble cast, some actors playing more than one role, are all fantastic. Laughter in the audience was so refreshing, yet tears in the end. Amazing night at the theatre.

We went to understand the force that was Ira Aldridge, who appeared on a premier late Georgian stage in Covent Garden, decades before black actors were accepted.  Adrian Lester's unforgettable performance was powerful and emotional, and he was supported by excellent actors.  The perimeter of the set was a beautiful back stage creation featuring makeup tables in bronze and mahogany hues. The semi-dance movements of the actors as they changed the set communicated their thoughts as the storyline progressed.  

Very grateful to Time Out's tickets in Row BB.  It allowed us to feel as if we were part of the play and indeed, of history in the theatre and society.


The problem about reading reviews is that it creates too much expectation. I got disappointed, but that’s only because of too flattering reviews. I still liked it very much and would suggest seeing it. 

The stage setting is interesting in its simplicity and the acting is brilliant. The text is funny, actually topical and many times uncomfortable (in a good, rather important way): the play is not only about Ira Aldridge, but also about the space black people have in society, how society deals with difference and, even more, how English society deals with the foreign.
Yet, there is something missing – I can’t really put a finger on it –; although the performance doesn’t get distracting, it is still not really that engaging...  

Staff Writer

What a beautiful piece of theatre. Between the simple staging, the seamless scene changes and the exceptional performances, this is one of the best shows I've seen in recent months.

The writing is exquisite and handles a topic which is both awkward and shocking to a contemporary audience with ease using comedy when necessary and shock effectively without being heavy handed. And considering that it's based on a true story or a pioneer in not just the theatre world but in social quality, the facts are presented beautifully without a sense of flourish or exaggeration.

And Adrian Lester was an absolute revelation. Though the supporting cast were brilliant, Lester really did shine as Ira Aldridge.

My first time at the Garrick and I had a great experience! This play sounded so contemporary and captivating. The final scenes are just amazing and Adrian Lester is definitely an actor I will follow more and more.