Running With Lions review – grief haunts a British Caribbean family

Lyric Hammersmith, London
Sian Carter’s debut play tells an inter-generational story of hidden mental illness that is richly played, with real pain but also sparks of joy.

A review by Arifa Akbar for London’s Guardian.

You are forced to “swallow your screams”, says an anguished father about the loss of his son. It is one of the many piercing moments in this moving drama about grief, mental illness and the harmful culture of silence that surrounds them within the British Caribbean community.

An inter-generational drama that reveals the emotional landmines that this silence has left in one family’s life, we are taken from an opening scene of bonding between siblings, Joshua (Nickcolia King-N’da) and Gloria (Velile Tshabalala), to a flash-forward in which he has died – his death never openly spoken of again – and she has suffered from “bipolar disorder” for years, which is hidden from the wider community.

Sian Carter’s debut play showcases her ample talent and places her squarely as a star in the making. It is gratifying too that this co-production with Talawa Theatre Company finds a home on a large stage, which it fills with power and pain but also sparks of joy.

Sparks of joy … Wil Johnson (Maxwell), Suzette Llewellyn (Shirley) and Ruby Barker (Imani) in Running With Lions at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Sparks of joy … Wil Johnson (Maxwell), Suzette Llewellyn (Shirley) and Ruby Barker (Imani) in Running With Lions at the Lyric Hammersmith. 

Directed by Michael Buffong, its pace is initially slow but it finds its feet in the second half and there are some incredibly poignant scenes. Gloria’s 16-year-old daughter, Imani (Ruby Barker, understatedly brilliant) speaks about the psychological legacy of her mother’s mental illness – she is often left in the care of her grandparents, Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn) and Maxwell (Wil Johnson), in a charged exchange, and there are bristling mother-daughter battles between Gloria and Shirley too.

The role of the church in this family’s life features in complicated ways. Maxwell, a pastor, tells a silently sceptical Gloria that the “gospel can heal you”, but in another scene he himself rails against his faith’s inability to lessen his grief after his son’s death.

Alongside this there is joy: in music, dance and in family love which is palpable and heartfelt in both the writing and performances. Imani’s relationship with her grandparents is particularly tender, while the cuddly Maxwell and indomitable Shirley are so charismatic a double act that their story threatens to eclipse other elements of the plot.

The script only needs tightening to raise it to greater heights but the jumbled set – a living room with revolving staircase and stars overhead – looks incoherent and is not helped by sometimes clunky lighting.

Those niggles aside, this is a potent piece of theatre which, curiously, also has the episodic pace and rhythm of a TV drama. We know and care about this big-hearted family enough by the end to want more.

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