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Running With Lions review: an extraordinarily assured debut

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mazingly, this thoughtful, involving study of a British Jamaican family dealing with grief and mental health problems is Sian Carter’s first play. Three generations – god-fearing grandparents, a damaged mother, and a daughter trying to shape her own destiny – are drawn with equal warmth and compassion.

That the family is fractious but loving is one of the play’s many unexpected joys. That both the stiff-spined, decorous grandma Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn) and her preacher husband Maxwell (Wil Johnson) are flawed but rounded and likeable individuals is another.

It’s not perfect: the plotting is schematic at the beginning and end, and in the flagged-up crisis that ends the first half. Some of the dialogue lacks finesse. But no wonder Talawa Theatre’s Michael Buffong chose to nurture and direct it, or that Lyric boss Rachel O’Riordan put it on her theatre’s main stage. Structural flaws aside, this is an extraordinarily assured debut.

It begins clumsily, with young Joshua (Nickcolia King-N’da) and his sister Gloria (Velile Tshabalala) celebrating his first art show and her new flat. They’re so dizzily happy and affectionate you know something bad is going to happen.

Sure enough, we next see Gloria 16 years later, fetched from a mental health ward to her parents’ house, where her late brother is never mentioned, and her daughter Imani (Ruby Barker) is getting ready to fly the coop.

Ruby Barker and Suzette Llewellyn in Running With Lions

/ Jahvin Morgan Photography

Carter seldom does the expected. She introduces an ethereal debate about faith and loss between Joshua and his hospitalized father which is all the more surprising because it is incisive and furious. Gloria’s condition is gauchely introduced, but thereafter treated with great delicacy. Barker’s Imani has an extraordinary speech explaining her life to her mother.

The complex interplay of guilt, affection and exasperation between Shirley, Maxwell, Gloria and Imani is acutely well observed. So, too, is the enduring romance of the older couple, which has petrified over the years to a point where they can’t be honest with each other.

Though the actors have to mark time in the more humdrum passages, Carter gives each of them a chance to shine, and they duly deliver. Johnson is particularly good as the cheerful, charming, doubting Maxwell, but the three women also have devastating emotional moments. For obvious reasons Joshua has less of a part, but Carter still makes him more real than some subsidiary characters written by more experienced playwrights that I could mention.

Buffong’s deceptively laid-back production is staged on a star-studded set dominated by the encircling arms of a double staircase, and accompanied by vintage soul and doo-wop tunes. There’s something slightly old-fashioned, even naff, about the whole enterprise, but the core of it is mature and heartfelt. Carter came to writing through working as an assistant director. I can’t wait to see more.

Lyric Hammersmith, until 12 March; book tickets here

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