“Memories fade. Memories contort and change”
First seen last year at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse where it was partially cross-cast with a striking reinvention of Anna Karenina, Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone has kept on rolling down to Richmond where it has now opened at the Orange Tree. And at its helm, Ellen McDougall continues to prove herself one of the more exciting and inventive of a new generation of directors, with a simple but searing production.
The title comes the name of a Kampala newspaper that outed gay Ugandans by publishing their names and addresses and calling for their execution and Urch examines its fallout in the micro-perspective, looking at how it played out for one family. Joe has just become pastor of an Anglican church, under the aegis of the manipulative Mama, but neither are aware that Joe’s younger brother Dembe is happily cavorting with a mixed-race doctor from Northern Ireland called Sam.
As society turns in on itself with sex and religion doing battle, politics and power very much in play, and witch-hunts being stoked up, the strain on the family – including Dembe’s sister Wummie – becomes unbearable. Sule Rimi’s fiery preacher chills with his righteousness, Fiston Barek’s Dembe aches with wronged conviction and caught between the two, Faith Omole is scintillatingly good. Strong support comes too from Julian Moore-Cook’s Sam, able to duck out, and Jo Martin’s fervent neighbour.
Urch’s writing is remarkably even-handed given the depth and darkness of the subject matter and if there’s any minor criticism to be levelled, The Rolling Stone could perhaps investigate where these ingrained attitudes towards homosexuality have come from and how they’ve long been reinforced by institutions (as we’re seeing right now in the Anglican church’s inability to discuss gay rights without destroying itself). That said, it is otherwise powerfully drawn and dramatised.