Goodness is not a competition.
Robin Soanes had a plan for a play in the back of his mind and it coalesced after he met a young man whose family had been divided by its religious convictions. He was disturbed by the way in which pride and prejudice can turn something that ought to be a force for reconciliation into something divisive, and can fracture families almost beyond repair.
Eli Gillard is preparing himself for the funeral of his wife Grace. He lives in Leytonstone, but he and his family are gathering together at their other home in Perseverance Drive, Barbados. The whole family are steeped in the traditions of the Pentecostal Church and you’d expect this to bring them together, especially at a time like this, but we soon learn that things are not as simple as all that.
Eli’s eldest son Nathan is a minister in the Church and is dictating the arrangements, with the help of his wife Ruth. When the youngest son Zek arrives with his wife Joylene we begin to feel the first signs of unease. They have started their own Church and there is clearly some enmity in the air. Next on the scene are Bishop Marvin Clarke and his pastor son Errol (a former art student of Ruth’s), at whose church the service will take place. Last to arrive is the middle son Joshua, but what is it that Josh has done that raises everyone’s eyebrows just to see him here?
Zek and Joylene should be grateful just to attend the funeral, because they’re living in sin. Josh is a backslider too, because although he’s no longer living with “that man” his lifestyle still doesn’t meet the criteria for acceptance.
As the preparations continue we can see that this is not going to be the funeral that any of them want and the tension build to a breathtaking climax during the funeral itself, which brings the first act to a dramatic close and leaves the audience stunned in our seats.
Four years pass during the 15 minutes of the interval and the location is now Eli’s flat in Leytonstone. Eli’s health is failing and he is mentally preparing himself to join his wife. He is here to be nearer to his family but Nathan, Ruth, Zek and Joylene are all so busy doing good work in their respective churches that they have little time spare to provide the support he needs. Only Josh troubles himself to come round and help his dad with his bandages and ointments and make sure he is eating properly. The trouble is that the rest of the family, especially the self-righteous, bible-quoting Joylene, find it inappropriate for the “pervert” of the family to be caring for their father. They would prefer a sister of mercy to visit and care for him, and at any rate they think he should really be concentrating his mind on thoughts of his ascension.
Further accusations, and a game of one-upmanship, lead to Eli declaring that it is Josh who has taught him that goodness is not a competition. Eli’s life ebbs away as the play reaches its close, leaving us with a sense of sadness tinged with optimism and an uncertainty as to whether the family will ever find the reconciliation that Grace had hoped for. Robin Soanes tells us that he is fascinated by situations where everyone has a different point of view and none of them can be thought of as actually wrong – sometimes each individual’s rightness clashes against the others and what transpires is one big mess.
Soanes’s writing is spectacular and Bush artistic director Madani Younis has choreographed the performances from his tremendous cast to every last detail. Eli is played by Leo Wringer, with Derek Ezenagu as Nathan, Frances Ashman as Ruth, Clint Dyer (Josh), Kolade Agboke (Zek), Akiya Henry (Joylene), Ray Shell (Bishop Marvin) and Lloyd Everitt (Erroll). I refuse to single out any of them as they are all outstanding.
Jaimie Todd’s nicely distressed set sits traverse-style on the Bush stage, with the audience feeling almost as voyeurs, spying into each side of a room that serves as both Barbados and London homes and effecting a striking transformation into the chapel at the end of act one.
Perseverance Drive is a powerful, painful and sometimes hilarious study of a family broken apart by conflicting loyalties and standards, and it is hard to imagine a more effective or inventive staging than this premiere production which is another hit for the Bush. It plays until Saturday 16th August.