By Shaun Hutchinson
Jenny Jules dominates this performance of Fabulation, Lynn Nottage's satiric, serio-comic play. It’s not that her co-stars are below par, far from it, more that her total control of the role overwhelms the production.
The story follows the downward journey of a penniless and pregnant Undine Barnes Calles back to her working-class Brooklyn neighbourhood – and the family she dreads.
In a portrayal of every emotion – ranging from pride, arrogance and humiliation, to weary acceptance of her reduced status and fate - Jenny Jules’ mastery of the role means that the play’s fast-paced set and scene changes did not miss a beat.
Expertly directed by Indhu Rubasingham, whose theatre work includes Roy Williams’ Starstruck at the Tricycle, Yellowman at Hampstead Theatre and Tanika Gupta’s recent Sugar Mummies at the Royal Court for the National Theatre, this run of a play first performed as part of the Tricycle’s African American Season in 2005/2006 has a new cast. Only Jenny Jules returns in a role she clearly relishes.
Lynn Nottage, from Brooklyn, New York, is clearly an excellent writer - learned, knowledgeable, with an ear to the sound and content of language and contemporary New York culture. Her language and dialogue is sharp, precise, and full of acutely observed one-liners. It’s only the grating English accents straining to achieve authentic American inflection which spoils the performances.
But that doesn’t diminish the power of Jenny Jules portrayal though. When her Latin-lover husband Hervé - portrayed with panache by Karl Collins - walks out on her, he takes with him all Undine’s money and social standing, and leaves her broke with an unborn child and no one to turn to for comfort.
It’s in this situation – tragic but with a comic side - that Undine has to face up to what she most dreads - the background, home and family which she turned her back on 14 years earlier. It is because she has reinvented herself over the years.
After erasing her past, she has never looked back — until now. She was born humble Sharona Watkins and raised in the Brooklyn projects. Undine’s battles to retain her credibility, and to navigate the new life of hardship give this play it’s element of tragedy.
She gets caught in a tide of people and events both comic and harrowing. It’s these scenes that bring the characters out and the weary and cleverly depicted observations of modern life – the false friend, with equally implausible and interchangeable accents, the philosopher ex-drug addict and the lotto-addicted parents.
Among other characters she encounters are her first Iraq War Veteran brother - and failed poet - Flow, ‘wotless’ parents who make a living as security guards, a drug addicted grandmother, a group of addicts at a drug rehabilitation meeting, bad-mannered dole office workers, former girlhood friends and more. All nine cast members were versatile and portrayed their different characters with energy and enthusiasm.
This isn’t a traditionally told saga either. The action takes place in both the past and present as Undine relates her story straight to audience and in hilarious vignettes with characters from her present and past lives.
But there is no doubt that Jenny Jules, and her unforgettable character Undine, is the star of this show.
Fabulation by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
Designer – Rob Jones
Date – 18 September 2006
Tricycle Theatre, London