Eclipse Theatre’s UK premiere of Don Evans’ 1982 comedy toured the country in autumn 2011, when it was described as the link between Restoration comedy and The Cosby Show. On watching Dawn Walton’s recast production on its London visit, I can see the point of either comparison, but wonder how factitious they are.
True, the principal setting in a middle-class black household in Philadelphia bears a basic similarity to that of Cosby’s Huxtable family, but Evans’ preacher Avery Harrison (Karl Collins) and his snobbish, malapropising wife Myra have none of the Huxtables’ implicitly admirable qualities; indeed, throughout the play runs a vein of criticism of the pretensions of what young Felix Harrison’s more “street” girlfriend Li’l Bits calls “bourgie niggahs”.
As for the Restoration side, virtually the entire complement of characters are broad types: the Harrisons and Li’l Bits, club owner Caleb (Clifford Samuel), who has wandered in from the set of a blaxploitation movie, Avery’s niece Beverley (Rebecca Scroggs), who has been willed into Caleb’s guardianship and makes the standard Restoration journey from country innocent to too-knowing urbanite, and so on. But I am unconvinced that such caricaturing works in this context.
Nor, perhaps, is Walton. She has staged the play as if it were a studio shoot of a 1970s US sitcom, with “On Air” signs, taped bursts of applause on cast members’ first entrance and the like. The aesthetic is clearly “retro” even from the date of Evans’ writing, yet there is no indication that the play was originally intended as a period piece. (Nor would any ’70s sitcom, much less a black one, have dared to make major business out of a clandestine copy of The Joy Of Sex.)
If it is considered necessary to “buy” both the comedy and the social commentary by means of setting them in a camp, consciously artificial version of the past, then what weight does either the serious or the comic aspect truly have in 2013? Of course, this raises the further question of what standing I have as a white Northern Irishman to find problems with a play about black Americans. Nevertheless it strikes me (to cite a song broadly contemporaneous with that from which Evans took his title) as a case of too much monkey business.