Kiln Theatre, London, until May 27
Only Sidney Poitier could ever possibly play Sidney Poitier. Ivanno Jeremiah makes a fine job of communicating his passion and social conscience, but he can’t quite pull off the elegance, sophistication and charming veneer of the late great actor and activist. There’s the iron fist, but all too little of the velvet glove in his performance.
Amit Sharma’s production of Ryan Calais Cameron’s Retrograde undoubtedly has a lot to be said for it. It is well written, occasionally very funny and usefully focuses on a period of Poitier’s life that is too often overlooked: how he stood tall and refused to compromise during the McCarthyite era of the fifties when he could have made life a lot easier for himself by shopping other black actors for taking part in supposedly un-American activities.
The play is set in the office of a hard-nosed studio lawyer – Daniel Lapaine – who is initially lording it over an apparently liberal writer (Ian Bonar) who wants Poitier to appear in a drama that’s going to set the world to rights. Soon it becomes apparent, when Poitier joins them, that the part is contingent upon him declaring his fellow black actor Paul Robeson is a Commie sympathiser. The lawyer pours everyone whiskies and obligingly lays out the necessary legal paperwork for the young up and coming actor to sign.
The designer Frankie Bradshaw has created an impressive executive office for this test of Poitier’s moral fibre and Sharma keeps the direction taut and focused. My only reservation about the play is that it makes no concession at all to Chekhov’s old rule about no one being altogether good and no one being altogether bad. Poitier is just too good – just one moment of weakness or doubt would have given Jeremiah so much more to work with – and the lawyer and the scriptwriter just too bad.
Still, the actors all acquit themselves honourably, and a play about individuals being corrupted in a state that’s succumbed to immorality is certainly timely. There is no question, too, that this marks a great return to form for the Kiln as a powerhouse of exciting new writing and thought.