Realism Fails to Pull Off Reality in Lucky People


Naima Mungai as Jean

“YOU ain’t seen a John Godber play unless directed by me,” says John Godber but his play Lucky Sods which opened at Phoenix Theatre on Friday January 14 2011 was directed by George Mungai.

Godber is said to be the third most performed playwright in the UK after William Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn.

In an interview in The Sunday Times in 2006, Godber said, “While my plays are amusing, it’s really the truth of the observation that I want to be known for. If you get that right, then comedy follows.”

This “truth of observation” is possibly what was lacking in George Mungai’s adaptation, Lucky People, which I watched on Saturday January 16.

Godber’s comedy, which is often referred to as ‘bitter-sweet’ is typical ‘black’ comedy, where the audience laughs rather uneasily because there are very grave issues underlying the humour, like in the scene where Norman and Annie cannot disguise their glee for winning the lottery, even after just breaking to Norman the news that Jean is dead or the scene with Norman and his ailing mother. This requires a lot of subtlety to pull off, but I am not quite certain that the cast achieved this.

Andrew Muthure, who played Morris, seemed to be the only member of the cast who had appropriate depth of character, although Naima Mungai who was Jean, and Susan Nzisa who played Annie and doubled as Morris’ mother, acted reasonably well. On the other hand, Tash Mitambo’s interpretation of the roles he played was too physical. In my opinion, the role of Norman did not call for slapstick, comical gestures nor did the role of the pastor need humour due to an ethnic accent. The comedy premise lay in the sadness of the situation and the humour would have come off more effectively if he had actually played these roles more seriously.

An example is the scene where Annie drinks too much gin and speaks out what she and Norman have been saying behind Morris and Jean. Nsiza played this very well and Mitambo could have sat rigid with shame and the joke would have still come off. One doesn’t have to do much to show embarrassment and the cast also needs to believe that the audience is intelligent enough to understand the situation.

Lucky Sods, whose theme is based on the winning of the lottery, was first performed on April 9, 1995 soon after the British National Lottery was set up (in 1993). This theme is also timely in Kenya, given the current “sms-6969-to-win-a-million-everyday” fever.

However, while the attempts to adapt the play to a Kenyan audience were successful in some parts, (like Morris’ reference to the flood of Nigerian soap operas in Kenya) the adaptation was not altogether convincing.

Naima Mungai, Andrew Muthure, Susan Nzisa and Tash Mitambo Pictures courtesy of Phoenix PlayersI think the crucial question here is, how effectively does Mungai manage to portray the Kenyan working class in this play? (bearing in mind that ‘working class’, which is sometimes erroneously taken to mean ‘people with jobs’ is actually euphemism for ‘lower class’ while the middle class consists of the well-educated and/or the successful entrepreneurs and consequently, the well-to-do).

Even if we suppose that Mungai has a reliable and intimate knowledge of the on-goings of the Kenyan working class, it would still be difficult to translate a British working class character into a Kenyan one. A watchman in Britain (like Morris) and a watchman in Kenya are worlds apart in as far as their economic disposition is concerned.

A better approach to adapting this play may have been through theatricalism. In fact, Godber is quoted for saying that “if theatre’s going to exist [beyond the 1990s], it has to be unashamedly theatrical, and not rely on a fancy set, with a sofa and a French window.”

Realism, with elements like the fancy set, sofa and French window that Godber refers to here, (which is precisely what the Phoenix production had, complete with the indispensible drinks table upstage) tends to pin down a play to a specific place and time, which makes adaptations rather far-fetched.

Theatricalism shuns these elements of realism, often stripping the stage bare, so that we have a character called Morris, sitting on a chair, under a spotlight perhaps, contemplating if his new found fortune through the lottery will really bring him happiness. In this context, it wouldn’t matter if Morris were Kenyan, British or Japanese and any audience would make that vital human connection with him.

Lucky People will run at Phoenix Theatre until January 29.

© Anne Manyara 2011


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