There’s a key moment in Natasha Gordon’s highly impressive debut play when Aunt Maggie leaves the nine-night funeral wake that is part of her Jamaican heritage to go home and watch EastEnders. “Big tings are gawn in the Queen Vic tonight,” she announces. For me, that neatly sums up Gordon’s theme – which is the ability to inhabit two cultures and to acknowledge one’s ancestral past while living fully in the present.
Gordon’s play acquires extra resonance in the light of the Windrush scandal: the same Aunt Maggie gets a big laugh when she says that her Freedom Pass is “the only decent ting me get from this teefing government”. But the play is less about living in a hostile environment than about the tensions that erupt in the wake of loss.
The dead woman, Gloria, came to Britain from Jamaica as a young woman, leaving behind a daughter, Trudy. She then had two children by another man and their differences drive the action forward. Lorraine, who gave up her job to look after her dying mum, is the eternal coper supplying the food that is part of the traditional nine-night celebration.
Robert, married to a 45-year-old white teacher, is an entrepreneurial go-getter impatient with the claims of the past.
Gordon deals very well with the different layers of grief: one of the sharpest scenes shows the family arguing over the practical problems of the funeral. But the joy of the play is that it is exuberantly funny while arguing that it is possible to dwell in seemingly antithetical worlds. Even Anita, Lorraine’s graduate daughter, who initially views the whole nine-night wake with a rational scepticism, is sufficiently moved by her gran’s funeral to momentarily believe in God.
Aunt Maggie, who steals every scene she is in, and the newly returned Trudy also carry out a climactic ritual that supposedly releases the spirit of the dead woman. Whether we believe in its efficacy is irrelevant: Gordon’s point is that you don’t – nor should you – abandon inherited customs simply because you inhabit a materialistic, metropolitan culture.
The family history takes a bit of sorting out and I wish Gordon had told us more about Anita’s self-empowerment. But Roy Alexander Weise’s production has real momentum and underscores Gordon’s gift for raising big issues through laughter. The magnificent Cecilia Noble is inescapably dominant as the dogmatic Aunt Maggie, who has a belief in the equally restorative powers of chicken and Jesus and who, reacting with horror to the idea of Gloria being cremated, roundly declares “We don’t cook our people.” Franc Ashman as Lorraine captures perfectly the sadness of the dutiful daughter who was never wholly loved and, without shouting it from the rooftops, makes the point that England never really wanted the immigrants who have for so long sustained it economically.
Oliver Alvin-Wilson as Robert and Hattie Ladbury as his wife, Sophie, also make a totally plausible couple: it’s a sign of the play’s subtlety that while she is unequivocally embraced by her inherited Jamaican family, he is angrily resentful at his rejection by Sophie’s mother. But this is a play, dealing with Jamaican life but easily applicable to others, that says a lot in 105 minutes. It also proves the National’s belief in its mission to portray the multicultural Britain we live in.
• At Dorfman theatre, London, until 26 May. Box office: 020-7452 3000.