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Review: The Amen Corner

Thank the Lord for quality theatre!

The National Theatre is alive to the sound of gospel music in Rufus Norris’ exemplary staging of The Amen Corner. American playwright James Baldwin’s tale of religious fervour in 1950s’ Harlem and the questioning of one woman’s strict adherence to her Christian principles is brought vividly to life by a superb ensemble cast, Norris’ faultless direction and Ian MacNeil’s minutely detailed stage designs.

The play focuses on the Pastor of a Baptist Church, Margaret Alexander; a woman who appears to have devoted her life to the Lord, and whose religious beliefs govern everything she does. She not so much leads her flock, but harangues them into dutiful submission with impassioned sermons – all of which are greeted by choruses of ‘Amen – praise the Lord’, by the assembled throng. Like MacNeil’s ingenious set which is split into two floors – the Church above, and her modest kitchen below, Alexander’s life is similarly in two distinct parts; the persona she wishes to project as a religious leader, and her married life which preceded her dramatic conversion to a life of prayer and service.

Her world is set into turmoil when her drinking ex-husband arrives, a reminder from the past that she has tried to erase. He is ill, but despite the protestations of her sister and other members of the congregation she continues with her trip to their affiliated church in Philadelphia, but not before it transpires that it was she who left him, not the other way round.

During her absence the congregation begin to turn on her, and her son realises that he must stand up to her and pursue his dream of being a jazz musician. On her return it dawns on her that she has lost everything, and has been using religion as an excuse to blank out the difficulties that life and love entail. “To love the Lord is to love all His children, all of them – everyone! And suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost.”

As Alexander, Marianne Jean-Baptiste delivers a performance that is at turns impassioned, spell-binding, and in the end incredibly moving. She charts the pastor’s demise from spiritual leader to broken human being unerringly – living the part before our very eyes.

There is superb support from Sharon D Clarke as her loyal and faithful sister, Odessa, Cecilia Noble as Sister Moore, a duplicitous and larger than life member of the congregation, Jaqueline Boatswain and Donovan F Blackwood as Brother and Sister Boxer, who are instrumental in plotting Alexander’s downfall, and Eric Kofi Abrefa and Lucian Msamati as David and her husband Luke.

With a glorious soundtrack from the London Community Gospel Choir and a trio of musicians, Baldwin’s ‘The Amen Corner’ packs a serious theatrical punch, although it has to be said that momentum sags occasionally in the first part, which lasts ninety minutes, but this is a small quibble given the overall excellence of the undertaking.

GT gives this a: 4/5

There are tickets available for only £12 for the remaining performances thanks to Travelex – don’t miss! Runs until 4 August. nationaltheatre.org.uk.

Words: Keith McDonnell
Photo: Richard H Smith

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