This is quite a debut from playwright Sian Carter, a beautifully observed drama about a British-Jamaican family struggling to face up to tragedy, that effortlessly fills the Lyric Hammersmith’s venerable stage.
In an opening flashback scene set in 2004, we meet Gloria (Velile Tshabalala) and Joshua (Nickcolia King-N’da), an almost supernaturally harmonious brother and sister duo who are bidding each other a fond farewell as she prepares to move out of their parents’ house and in with her boyfriend. He, meanwhile, has a bright career as an artist ahead of him.
Everything looks golden… but then we skip forward to the present. Gloria is just about to return from a spell in a psychiatric institution and Joshua has ominously disappeared. The focus shifts to their elderly Windrush Generation parents, old smoothie Maxwell (Wil Johnson) and prim and proper Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn), plus Gloria’s bright teenage daughter, Imani (Ruby Barker) who has been living with her grandparents.
‘Running with Lions’ is a drama about picking up the pieces, and just about how hard it is for a group of people who love each other to know how to treat each other. It is not formally unusual in any way, but in Michael Buffong’s assured Talawa co-production it is absolutely beautifully observed, with the heart of it the relationship between Tsahabalala’s damaged, vulnerable, somewhat self-absorbed Gloria and Llewelyn’s Shirley, forever in denial about the state of her daughter’s mental health. Despite clearly being happy to see each other, their descent into a screeching, familiar argument within five minutes of Gloria getting home is excruciatingly well observed. Each is determined to do exactly what they think is right, and thinks the other is selfish for having desires of their own.
In between them lies Barker’s hard-working Imani, forced to grow up too soon, aware her mum can’t really take care of her and now very much taking her own life in hand. And star of the show is Johnson’s Maxwell, a kindly old preacher and inveterate diplomat and peacemaker, whose amusing antics belie the pain he feels at the loss of his son. Largely light relief – as in, that is where Maxwell purposefully places himself in the tense family dynamic – he has a powerhouse scene at the start of the second act when his guilt and sorrow at Joshua’s loss is laid bare.
It’s a formidable debut from Carter, given the care it deserves by an excellent cast and creative team. If it is undoubtedly an old-fashioned play in a lot of respects, Soutra Gilmour’s set gives it a pleasingly surreal note, a circular performance space surrounded by inky darkness filled with twinkling stars. It gives just a little spike of edginess to ‘Running with Lions’, which is as fine and empathetic a first play as you’ll see all year.