As we enter Studio 2 it already seems cramped, with the MD and cellist taking up a fair proportion of the stage. As the actors enter with drums to the strong first musical number ‘We are Descended’ the stage is suddenly too full, but although the band are ever-present, for the most part they do not distract from the actors.
Starting in the 1920s and delving back to 1847, Dessa Rose by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (adapted from the novel by Sherley Anne Williams) tells the story of two women seeking to find a place where they belong. They are both young and alone, with a baby to take care of, yet although their lives are similar, they could not be more different.
Ruth (Cassidy Janson) is a white woman with an absent husband; her only friend is her nurse Mammy (Sharon Benson), but once she dies she takes in runaway slaves and treats them almost as equals. Dessa Rose (Cynthia Erivo) is a black slave, who watched the father of her child brutally murdered. Sent away, scarred and pregnant, she is thrown in prison to be hanged, but before her baby is born she escapes and is brought to Ruth’s farm.
The story is a little slow and jumps back and forth; parts of the story are told by different people and it’s not always clear which century we’re in. Act II is where the production starts to have some depth, as Ruth and the ‘slaves’ travel south, swindling people as they go and travelling to find freedom and peace. Unfortunately this act is rushed and ends before the audience can really appreciate the (almost) drama that’s happening.
Songs are good, if not particularly memorable, but they are performed with power and passion by the cast. The song ‘Twelve Petticoats’ is almost amusing (there is no real humour in this production) although the washing line that appears on stage for all of 30 seconds is perhaps a little contrived.
Erivo is exceptionally talented, and although Dessa Rose cannot match her performance as Celie in The Color Purple, she sings with true emotion. Dessa’s troubled, feisty personality is clear, but even once she and Ruth have resolved their problems there is still tension which detracts from their final relationship in the book.
Janson gives one of her strongest recent performances as the poor abandoned Ruth. Her character starts off weak, but we see her become stronger as the play progresses and she has a charming voice that complements Erivo’s nicely.
Yet the character who stands out is Mammy, Ruth’s nurse. Sharon Benson plays her with humour and poise, as well as an air of mystery. It’s clear from her wry smiles and expressions she disapproves of the Charleston society, but does she care for Ruth, or just see her as another ‘white woman’?
There is a lot right with this production and there’s very little to fault from the cast’s performances. However, considering the power of Williams’ novel (which is based on a combination of true events), the production simply fails to do it justice.
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes
Dessa Rose is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 30 August 2014. Click here for tickets.