Entering the Burton Taylor Studio to be greeted by Francesca Amewudah-Rivers slumped on a stark white chair against a backdrop of family pictures, it becomes clear that John Livesey’s adaptation of Debbie Tucker Green’s Random is not your typical Oxford Am-Dram production. Staging a one-woman play that tackles the sensitive yet urgent topic of knife crime, alongside a landscape of race, gender, and familial relationships, is certainly ambitious. However, the astuteness of every cast and crew member makes the production a sleekly emotional triumph.
There are very few plays that could sustain such an electric connection with the audience for fifty minutes without interval. Gazelle Mba’s minimalistic set design forms an intelligently understated symbol for the construction and destruction of family life. The addition of a microphone to the set after the crux of the plot transforms the speech of the sister into a court testimony, unsettling any previous domestic warmth. As Amewudah-Rivers entangles herself in the cord of this stark prop, she wraps herself in the memory of all those affected by the social uncertainty that warrants the line, ‘Death used to be for the old’. Furthermore, the precision of the lighting orchestrated by Linette Chan plays an integral role in separating both the multiple characters, and the time scale of the play, so that fifty minutes becomes a series of days.
Amewudah-Rivers’ acting is nuanced and fresh. Her performance is peppered with perfect comic timing in the first half of the play, an impressive feat considering Random’s emotional depth. Her portrayal of grief, heartbreak, and the dissolution of family roles are professional and clean. Not one word of Tucker Green’s script is wasted. The immense challenge of flipping between the characters of mother, sister, father, and brother could have easily descended into disorientation if approached by a less capable performer, but the standing ovation on the opening night is testament to her talent. The sharpness of the distinction between characters is achieved through an intoxicating blend of vocal contortion, Chan’s fluidity of lighting, and Mba’s raw set design.
Particularly extraordinary, however, is Amewudah-Rivers’ physicality. As she walks across the stage, so do we as an audience traipse to school, to work, to the butcher. The stooped back of the mother reflects a life defined by working hard and giving love, just as the military posture of the father gives gravity to the stock character of the man as the head of the house. The realignment of family positions in the aftermath of the death of a son was questioned through this physical characterisation. Amewudah-Rivers’ command meant there was not a single area of the stage that escaped becoming complicit in the performance. It would be a further challenge to her ability (and immensely intriguing if nothing else) to see the production transposed into a bigger space. The power and vulnerability her presence can evoke indicates that the intimacy required of Random would not be lost, and the impact of the play, with the chilling line “It’s already way too late,” would potentially resonate further.
With just one cast member, no intervals, and an intimate performance space, every element of Random has to flow, to avoid a staccato sense that would detract from the impact Tucker Green intended for her words. The seamless harmony between the direction, production, set design, lighting, and acting goes further than this – the script is elevated so that even as we understand it to be fiction, we cannot escape the wider context of the reality of random violence in an uncertain world.