Francesca Amewudah-Rivers’ ability to completely transport me into the world of Random, even without the magical context of a theatre, speaks to her impressive talent as an actress. At a hurriedly arranged preview of the play’s first act at the Okinaga Room of Wadham College, I saw her embody multiple characters with consummate skill. Her accents, tones of voice and facial expressions shift masterfully, with each character clearly recognisable, even as their emotional states shift dramatically. What is perhaps most convincing is her use of physicality, her bearing and stature morphing impressively, truly embodying the characters, from the hunched careworn mother to the confidently upright father, and the son’s careless, loose-limbed ceaseless movement.
Speaking after her performance, Amewudah-Rivers tells me how her and director John Livesey had discussed in detail the importance of “spotlighting each of these characters, showing how they all link but are all individuals.” This focus certainly came through in the performance, with the closeness of the family permeating throughout, palpable even in the tensions between them. The mother resents how her children take her for granted, feeling like “their keeper” as she clears away their breakfast plates, but then softens as she states that actually she is doing this “like their mother.” Amewudah-Rivers also discusses how being, as a black woman, the only actor on stage, “centralises the themes of gender and race,” with Livesey agreeing that it enhances this ongoing examination of “the role of the woman within the family,” and the burdens placed upon her.
The intimacy of this family of developed characters, built through, as Amewudah-Rivers says, “Finding the truth and the honesty behind all of them,” and who all come together within this one actress, makes the later intrusion of the police into their home deeply jarring. Present within the play only in the family’s reactions, they are a sinister gap in the dialogue, and Amewudah-Rivers, as each family member, moves around their imagined figures with caution. The family’s fear and distrust for them is striking and infectious, and I as the only audience member recoil from writer Debbie Tucker Green’s very physical descriptions of them traipsing uninvited over the mother’s best carpet in their “outside shoes.”
As Amewudah-Rivers comments, “There’s a lot of emphasis on ‘them’ versus ‘us’,” and Livesey adds that “what we hope to capture with our staging is this sense that the police, who we should feel protected by, feel like this intrusion,” and “so often institutions can feel they are at a disjunct from communities and families, especially from ethno-religious communities.” Amewudah-Rivers’ deft shifting of intensity, and portrayal of true fear, resentment and anger, really drive home the emotional implications of this, making the most of the musicality of the script through angry crescendos and poignant, frightened moments of quiet.
This poetic or music quality is a particular focus of Livesey’s, and he reflects on how, “finding the different rhythms, the different beats, the different energies for the characters, finding their music, and then letting Fran sing it, was a great process for me.” The play is also poetic in how short phrases can be laden with meaning, and Amewudah-Rivers gives these lines space to work on the audience. She allows a significant lull in the mother’s hectic industry as she notes wistfully, and with an odd nostalgia: “still I catch a shiver of a shadow of a shadow of a day.” She delivers with slow sickening force a line observing how the police take out a “clear plastic bag of a conversation stopper.”
Throughout the play we see repetitions of phrases or moments from different perspectives, like a form of refrain, but each time radically altered by the context and tone. Both the mother and daughter comment on the father’s quietness in similar terms, but the daughter seems affectionately impressed, the mother somewhat defeated. This repetition is at work even in what seem at first more quotidian moments of the play. Characters repeatedly state the time of day, the significant of which becomes painfully clear as it culminates in the police stating the time of the play’s central incident. Amewudah-Rivers is able to use these poetic qualities of repetition and rhythm to enhance the emotional impact of her performance, where with a lesser actor they may damage the play’s believability.
Both Amewudah-Rivers and Livesey hope to see their production of Random have an ongoing impact after the performance. Livesey tells me, “we’re really hoping this play doesn’t just rest on its laurels, we are really trying to raise awareness.” The production team will be collecting and raising awareness for the Damilola Taylor Trust, which Livesey tells me “is about trying to create more aspirational opportunities for kids.” As Amewudah-Rivers points out, Oxford “experiences these same kinds of problems, these same kinds of disjuncts” as we are shown in the lack of understanding between the family and police. She hopes that, “by seeing this play, whether they’re current students or prospective students, people can see that they’re represented by a stage in Oxford.” In pursuing this goal of greater representation, she has also set up the BAME Drama Society, which she describes as “a safe space for any BME students to just share and explore and create, and voice our own stories and our own narratives through theatre.”
They both hope that, rather than feeling comfortably virtuous for attending the play, audiences – and, as Livesey notes, “particularly white audiences” – will recognise that “you could still be doing more, you should still be thinking about these questions for you.” As Amewudah-Rivers adds, “everyone has implicit bias, and everyone needs to check themselves.” Whether they leave with this sense of responsibility will be up to audiences of the whole play to decide, but I certainly believe that Amewudah-Rivers’ subtle and convincing performance makes empathy for the characters and their struggles unavoidable.
Random runs at the Oxford Playhouse from 31 October-4 November. Tickets are available here.