The ghost of a dead father and the brutal history of slavery haunt the ramshackle former plantation house of a dysfunctional American family in the UK premiere of Branden Jacob-Jenkins' Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Ola Ince. It’s part gothic story, part family drama and part history play. We learn much about the central trio of Lafayette siblings (Frank, Toni and Bo) as they meet to prepare to sell the Arkansas estate: the past looms large over the action as resentments surface and terrible secrets emerge.
The discovery of a shocking album of photographs provides a focus for the unfolding drama, allowing Jacob-Jenkins to explore a variety of interesting and important questions about what is and is not appropriate in response: revulsion? condemnation? understanding? forgiveness? It’s a promising set up and works, partly. There’s plenty to intrigue but this is not a play which lingers in the memory and, given much of the subject matter, it should. Thematically rich territory but for a family drama to really hit the mark, we need to care. Disappointingly, I found I simply didn’t care enough.
Monica Dolan is a firebrand as embittered eldest sibling Toni. Full of anger and powerfully sarcastic in the first act, she delivers a more nuanced performance in the second when the writing allows us an insight into the vulnerabilities of a woman crushed by self-loathing and suffering under a daddy complex which blinds her to some of the dark aspects of her father’s character. Steven Mackintosh is an effective contrast, investing Beauregarde/Bo with a weary charm as he struggles to juggle the competing roles of brother, husband and father.
Youngest brother Frank (or Franz as he prefers to be known now) is a troubling character, with a backstory which includes a conviction for sex with a minor alongside drug and alcohol addictions. Edward Hogg’s enigmatic performance forces the audience to reflect on some uncomfortable questions and he’s particularly strong in the dependent relationship with girlfriend River, an excellent Tafline Steen. There’s strong support too from Jaimi Barbakoff and Isabella Pappas, as Bo’s wife and daughter.
There’s a rich history of great American family drama, from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night to Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. As Matt Trueman notes in the programme, Jacob-Jenkins is clearly influenced and informed by these writers. Echoes of these plays undulate through Appropriate: an ambitious play and a writer to watch.
Appropriate is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 5th October 2019.