WHEN the story is about the harsh life of slaves in 19th century Jamaica it can’t be a pleasant one.
’The Long Song’ at Chichester’s Festival Theatre doesn’t shy away from the reality of the cruelty, and degradation, they suffered while working under a burning sun cutting sugar cane.
It sends shock waves as the author, Andrea Levy, intended – and this adaption, by Shayla El-Bushra, does not dilute her story of how slaves were savagely treated by their white masters.
Yet throughout this disturbing story is a theme of warmth, vibrance and at times humour, generated by a superb black cast headed by Llewella Gideon who gives an outstanding and deeply moving performance as old Miss July, heavy with age, leaning on a stick, and draped in shawls.
A former slave, who has survived degradation and terrible loss, she has been invited a large manor house in Jamaica but doesn’t know why. Welcomed by an elegant, wealthy, gentleman, Thomas Kinsman (Syrus Loew) who has a secret to tell her, but first she has to tell him the story of her life.
A sassy Miss July plays dumb while asking for wine and food. But eventually not only her sad story but that of her mother unfolds to a background of an almost forgotten period of colonial history when Jamaican slaves fought back.
Played out to a background of sugar canes lit by sunlight, which somehow has infiltrated the house servants who go about their duties taking time to talk and sing with each other.
As her story unfolds we see July being born to a mother, raped and whipped by the slave boss, and then has the child taken from her by the plantation owner’s empty headed sister, Caroline (Olivia Poulet) to train as her lady’s maid.
Grown into a woman, the young Miss July (a moving and passionate performance by Tara Tijani) is beautiful and refined and when a new slave owner Robert Goodwin (Leonard Buckley a strong portrayal of a flawed character) arrives he falls in love with July.
He also arrives as the Abolition of Slavery Act is passed, so he is facing slaves who no longer want to work for him as well as trying to find a way to live with July without marrying her.
He works out a bizarre plan that will lead to betrayal and heartache for July when he goes back to England taking Caroline and the daughter he fathered with July. July is left destitute while carrying his second child.
The final scene brings us back to old Miss July, still refusing to confirm Syrus’s story of her life until he tells her the startling secret of who he is.
It is a strangely uplifting play thanks to brilliant casting backed by splashes of vibrant dancing, plus strong direction by Charlotte Gwinner who has allowed humour and comedy to gently run through this cruel story.
’The Long Song’ runs until October 23.