No sign of Simon Cowell around but anyway it wasn’t the eggs broken on stage at the National Theatre that stole the show. These eggs (Three. Phil counted), unlike those in Children of the Sun, were at least cracked into a bowl and whisked.
Nor was it the convincingly realised period carton from which the eggs were produced that most impressed, although the attention to detail was most agreeable (along with the C & H sugar packet in the kitchen cupboard – check it out if you’re sitting near the front), but it was a almost a photo-finish.
No, it was one Cecila Noble as the virginal and potential pastor-usurper Sister Moore in the pentecostal Harlem church where James Baldwin‘s 1954 drama is partly set that smuggled the evening into her gospel robe and unashamedly took it away with her. She’s chillingly machiavellian yet also delivers most of the comedy and in a breathy voice that evoked memories of a lower register Butterfly McQueen. Even her church chair-unstacking is deliciously comic. And all this in one of the best ensembles to be seen on stage in London. Hopefully someone backstage is making an omelette and giving it to a cast member afterwards. With the amount of energy expelled by in The Amen Corner they will be in need of the extra protein.
Sister Margaret (Academy Award Nominee – as they would sell her in a film trailer – Marianne Jean-Baptiste) has quite a lot on her hands: she’s chosen the Lord over her alcohol-fuelled husband Luke (Lucian Msamati) only to see the latter swagger back 10 years later, terminally ill. Her son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) is falling away from the faith and there’s a question mark hanging over her expenses. Exactly how did she afford that lovely new Frigidaire? Her congregation is getting tetchy.
Jean-Baptiste delivers her rousing sermons so breathtakingly that naysayers might almost consider a trip to church and they’re a great contrast to the touching vulnerability of her domestic scenes. Sharon D Clarke gives a subtly understated performance as her down-to-earth sister and Jacqueline Boatswain as Sister Boxer, Abrefa and Msamati also stand out among the strong supporting cast.
But there’s not quite enough dramatic tension in the play to sustain the two-and-a-half hours plus running time despite the stakes being raised in the second half. There’s a slightly cheesy conclusion that to love the Lord you have to love all His children, which no doubt gets them whooping with delight and ovating on Broadway. But the biggest problem lies in Ian MacNeil’s design which although it looks good eploys a split-level staging which even from the front rows lends a distancing effect to the otherwise well-mounted church scenes. Not that it impedes the London Community Gospel Choir who belt out numbers superbly throughout the show.
Still, (and though we have nothing to compare it to) you probably won’t get a much better production than this one from director Rufus Norris. If the Olivier Award voters don’t recognise some of the performances, not only will we eat our jauntily worn titfers, we’ll find out who they are and hunt them down.