Theatre: When A Great Playwright Bombs

January 13, 2024
2 mins read

By Shaun Hutchinson
Thursday, November 06, 2008.
I  really wanted to like this play: Carmen Munroe is always a pleasure to watch. The pioneer of five decades of Black theatre in Britain brings grandeur and authority to any role.
Playwright Allister Bain is also a veteran of Caribbean and British performing arts. An accomplished writer, his Effie May – like Catalysta set in his homeland of Grenada – received acclaim in 2005.
With an experienced cast, including local girl Angela Wynter – Yolande Trueman from Eastenders. The personnel were good, but the play did not meet the high standard their talents merit.
For sure the writing was realistic; the characters believable and the story adequate. But there was nothing to set this family drama above soap opera level.
Over 90 minutes without a break or intermission as the story unfolds, and with uninspiring direction from Robert Icke it’s all quite pedestrian. Rhys Jarman’s sparsely designed set – a sitting room with an old school rocking chair, settee, and a family sized dinner table – is where the action takes place.
Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which left large parts of Grenada devastated, there’s barely hidden tension.
It’s nothing unusual – all families have intrigue, secrets, and hidden enmities. We soon learn about their jealousies and rivalries. Between son-in-law Lionel (a creepy Cornell S John), his wife Pat (Lisa Davina Phillip), her parents Eartha (the majestic Carmen Munro) and Edward (Cedric Duncan) and granddaughter Connie (La-Charné Jolly).
Into this atmosphere Wynter as Catalysta arrives from London and sparks a series of confrontations that bring the family’s problems out in the open.
Sharing pearls of wisdom and old-time stories, one by one she confronts, cajoles and interplays with the main characters.
The only reference to the source of this family’s power battles is ‘class’. Lionel, we learn, is from a family of farmers. But the point is not developed or elaborated upon, and poor dramatization and slow dialogue means there is no dramatic tension developed or rapport between audience and cast.
Alistair Bain is an experienced actor and writer and his script does pay homage to the richness of Caribbean language – parables and sayings abound, but there’s not much innovation, invention or excitement. And the sound effects – cascading water and birdsong – do little to add to the story, mood, time or place.
There is no theatrical device; Catalysta is not a magical realist character who transforms everyone’s lives, nor a fantasy persona with supernatural powers. It’s only her outsider status that stands her out. But as this essence  – an outsider looking in – is not fully exploited by the script any such an opportunity is lost.
Consequently sitting through Catalysta was like watching a live performance of Eastenders with that show’s style replicated in parts here – the snarling, shouting characters as substitutes for suspense, but these attempts failed to work.
The real life Hurricane Ivan brought more drama to Grenada than this dysfunctional family.

Catalysta: By Allister Bain
Directed by Robert Icke
Designed by Rhys Jarman
Lighting Design by Michael Nabarro
Oval House Theatre, 52-54 Kennington Oval, London SE11 5SW
Catalysta runs until 08 November 2008
© 2008
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine’s arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.
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