The Rolling Stone - At The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

A tremendous play revealing romantic love is a luxury some people in the world simply cannot afford says Liz Vercoe

Some time ago on holiday in Botswana, an American lady at dinner with us and local guides mentioned, in passing, a marriage between two men. Later one of the young guides, wide eyed and clearly plucking up courage, asked, "Is it OK to talk about homosexuality in your countries? Are you not offended? Here it is illegal." Being gay in Botswana meant you could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

This last piece of information is to be gleaned from a world map of laws at the centre of the programme of The Rolling Stone, Chris Urch's second play and here as a co-production with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. The map also shows that in Uganda, where the play is set, the penalty is even worse –14 years to life.

That's the official penalty, but this play is set in 2010 when a local Ugandan newspaper called The Rolling Stone stirred up murderous religious fervour and self-righteous violence against gay and lesbian people by outing them in the paper, hundreds at a time. For three months, before it was closed by a courageous legal action, it published photographs, names and addresses on the slightest evidence and linked these people with paedophilia and terrorism.

The play opens in a modern African church, cleverly hinted at by designer Joanna Scotcher using swathes of blue velvet beneath the Orange Tree balcony and place-setting gospel music from musical director James Fortune. Soon we meet two men out on a lake, talking about the starry night sky and comfortably learning about each other. Julian Moore-Cook plays Sam, a half-Irish, half-Ugandan doctor who is over from Derry, possibly seeking to understand more about himself. Outwardly he is muscular and strong but captures the inner vulnerability of never really fitting in, anywhere. Fiston Barek plays his friend and soon to be lover Dembe, a slight, almost spindly man with a fearless innocence and joyful smile that comes from feeling loved and at home. His is a performance you can't take your eyes from.

Dembe's lawyer father has recently died leaving him and his twin sister Wummie (Faith Omole) to finish their studies at medical school and their big brother Joe (Sule Rimi) hoping to be made Pastor of the local church. The cast is completed by haughty hip-rolling Mama (Jo Martin), their motherly but social-ladder-climbing neighbour, and her daughter Naome (Faith Alabi), who has mysteriously stopped speaking. Disturbingly Mama hopes Joe can cast out whichever demons have possessed Naomi, "in the name of Jesus".

So here we are, in the oppressive Ugandan heat, at the crossroad of science and reason and magical thought or, if you wish, blind belief. And everything gets put to the test by the sudden attack on homosexuals. It's a witch hunt that can't even be challenged; quite the opposite, in fact, for it demands denunciations from those who want to stay untainted.

Writer Urch, director Ellen McDougall and this really tremendous group of actors convincingly show us what it is to be a mere human in fear for your life and livelihood and, through poverty, have nowhere to run. It took six years just to get the church built on a bit of waste ground and as Mama says bitterly, "We are standing on neglect". In those circumstances what seems the best option at the time may be the worst with hindsight. But the worst option at the time might mean there is no future in which to have hindsight.

The sweet understanding between the voiceless Naome and honest Dembe, the bitterness of Wummie in being forced from hope, and the agony for an ambitious pastor in discovering his congregation has a dangerously hardline take on Godliness, keep audiences on the edge of their seat. In the world they create for us love, as most of us know it, is a luxury.

And yet somehow, despite these helpless lives, as crushable as ants, this play is ultimately a story of hope that goodness will prevail.

Liz Vercoe
Images: Manuel Harlan.

January 20, 2016