Review: The Fellowship, Hampstead Theatre ★★☆☆☆

 by Jim Keaveney

Tonight's performance of The Fellowship features a pre-show caveat from Hampstead Theatre's producer Greg Ripley-Duggan to let the audience know that Cherrelle Skeete would be performing parts of the play with a script in hand due to Lucy Vandi's recent departure from the cast due to ill health, while Skeete's previous role has been taken over by Yasmin Mwanza. It feels appropriate to open with the same caveat - there’s definitely a feeling tonight that the show hasn’t finished its creative process.

Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn in The Fellowship. Photo: Robert Day

Roy Williams is something of a Hampstead Theatre regular - as well as a string of productions at the theatre, stretching back to 2000's Local Boy, he also leads INSPIRE, the theatre's emerging writers programme. His return to Hampstead, directed by Paulette Randall, squeezes an expansive and multifaceted intergenerational plot into 2 hours 45 minutes.

Dawn (Skeete) and Marcia (Suzette Llewellyn) are fifty-something sisters - Dawn full of inherited trauma, Marcia trying to move away from her past. Their elderly mother (unseen), almost certainly at the end of her life, has moved in with Dawn, her son Jermaine (Ethan Hazzard) and Dawn's partner, the illusive musician Tony (Trevor Laird). But Dawn's trauma has not just been inherited from her Windrush Generation mother, but in the violent death of her eldest son at the hands of a white mob. Meanwhile, Jermaine is dating Simone (Rosie Day) - a white girl who Dawn blames for the death of her son.

Ethan Hazzard and Trevor Laird in The Fellowship. Photo: Robert Day

This could be state of the nation stuff; except it feels a little behind itself - set in 2019, pre-pandemic, and before the murder of George Floyd and the resulting widespread international outrage. It is a time-capsule but one where are re-examining the contents through a slightly shifted lens so that the action is skewed by the knowledge of what comes next, creating a dissonance in the play’s tone and message - and we come away with a feeling that there is more that could have been said about each of the plays numerous themes. Not enough time is dedicated to each and we never truly scratch the surface or get into the nuances of the subjects.

There are other pressing issues, too. It may be the result of the last-minute cast changes, but, for significant periods there is a lack of connection between the characters. The impression is that they are not speaking their lines to each other but simply speaking them aloud - the conversations do not feel natural. This is not always the case though; as the play progresses Skeete and  Llewellyn convince as two very different people who are, after everything is said and done, are still sisters at their core.

Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn in The Fellowship. Photo: Robert Day

The set by Libby Watson is something of a novelty, featuring two large rings; one of which forms the boundary of Dawn’s simple living room, the other hovering above the stage like a halo, before revealing itself to be a representation of Amazon’s Alexa device. It’s a clever trick the first time but the repeated use of Alexa throughout the play means the trick quickly becomes dated.

It’s a play that doesn’t quite click, or maybe one that just isn’t quite ready for the world. 

The Fellowship is at Hampstead Theatre until 23 July

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim

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