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Theatre review: The Amen Corner @ the National Theatre

POWERFUL: Lucian Msamati and Marianne Jean-Baptiste

AS SISTER Margaret roused her flock shouting, “Let the church say ‘Amen’,” it was hard to fight the temptation to respond with an equally passionate “Amen!”

With soul-stirring gospel music, and a host of convincing characters that any Pentecostal church attendee would surely recognise – “Sister so-and-so from my church is just like that” my friend whispered in my ear when Sister Moore (more on her later) took the stage – it was easy to forget that we weren’t part of Sister Margaret’s congregation.

Returning to the UK stage following her Stateside success in shows including Without A Trace and Takers, British star Marianne Jean-Baptiste gives a phenomenal performance as headstrong Sister Margaret, the pastor of a black church in 1950s Harlem.

But it soon becomes apparent that Margaret’s congregation is ready to revolt against their pastor and her hardline leadership, as they seethe about the amount of money that the church members raised to enable her to travel to travel to their sister church in Philadelphia – while they themselves are living in poverty.

Particularly angry are church-going couple Brother and Sister Boxer (Donovan F Blackwood and Jacqueline Boatswain), as Sister Margaret has forbidden Brother Boxer from taking a job driving a liquor truck – a job she feels is sinful.


FANTASTIC: Cecilia Noble gives a hilarious performance

And with Brother Boxer under pressure from his wife to bring more money into their home, his resentment for his pastor is fuelled further when he sees – and notes hilariously and repeatedly – that Sister Margaret has a brand new, state of the art fridge in her kitchen!

But the congregation’s anger reaches boiling point when Sister Margaret’s absentee husband – trombone-playing sinner Luke (Lucian Msamati) – returns to town, serving as a reminder that their pastor wasn’t always the sanctified woman she is today.

With Margaret’s jazz-playing estranged husband desperately ill and taking residence in her house – and her once devout teenage son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) falling prey to sinful temptations – her congregation level accusations of hypocrisy against her.

And even with the support of her loyal and encouraging sister Odessa (Sharon D Clarke), Sister Margaret’s virtuous world looks set to fall apart.

In the midst of all this is Sister Moore – fantastically portrayed by Cecilia Noble. Though she frequently insists that she’s never said a bad word about her pastor, Sister Moore really has her own designs on leadership and hankers after Sister Margaret’s position.


HALLELUJAH: The congregation give passionate praise

Still, the respected church elder masquerades as a peacemaker and had the audience in fits of laughter, both with her frequent declaration that she had never given in to temptations of the flesh, and with her energetic demonstrations of praise and worship, often punctuated with a powerful “praise the Lord!”

Though the production from celebrated playwright James Baldwin was set over 50 years ago, it offers an astonishingly accurate insight into the workings of many modern-day black-led churches – specifically, the politics that often exists behind the praise.

And with strong performances from the entire cast, The Amen Corner is well worth your time.

The Amen Corner continues at The National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 from June 4 – August 14. For more information visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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