Red Velvet, Tricycle Theatre, London

The red velvet of the title of Lolita Chakrabarti’s new play is unmissable in Indhu Rubasingham’s production: a vast, scarlet theatre curtain dominates the stage. So is Rubasingham’s tenure as artistic director at the Tricycle to be launched with a return to traditional, formal staging? Far from it. Tom Piper’s set is both evocative and ironic, forming the backdrop for a play that first playfully, then powerfully, examines progress on the stage as a reflection of the wider world. It’s a cracker of a play: gripping, intelligent and passionate, delivered with wit and vigour by a fine ensemble.

At the helm is Adrian Lester, giving a superb performance as the pioneering black American actor, Ira Aldridge. The play opens in 1867 at the end of Aldridge’s life. He is big in Europe, huge in Russia. But one city eludes him: London. He had played Covent Garden as a young man, but never returned. Chakrabarti’s play explores why: she whisks the action back to the Theatre Royal in 1833, to the moment when, the illustrious Edmund Kean having collapsed during a performance of Othello, Aldridge is called in to replace him overnight.

The play is first funny, then excruciating, as the Othello cast polarise over both Aldridge’s skin colour and his challenge to their rigid, declamatory style. Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas) sees the possibilities opened up by his freer, more passionate approach; Charles Kean (Ryan Kiggell), Edmund’s son, can’t see past his own prejudice and his stiff resistance to anything new. The staging slips neatly from the world of the play to that of Othello, quietly underscoring parallels. And although the action never leaves the theatre, the play deftly sketches in the wider picture: outside, arguments rage about the abolition of slavery; inside, the only other black face is that of the Jamaican serving girl (Natasha Gordon). The tension builds until, finally, the reviews are published, many of them shockingly hostile and racially prejudiced, and the management pulls the show.

Easy to leave it there, but Chakrabarti doesn’t: she also suggests that Aldridge’s determination may not have helped him at times. The odd weakness aside, this is a fine, subtle play that not only depicts the ugliness of prejudice in action, but also touches on wider questions about how change is achieved in theatre and society. It asks us not just to gasp at bygone attitudes, but to examine our own. A great curtain raiser.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.