'Pressure Drop' and 'Saving Grace' demonstrate contrasting styles
Theatregoers might be intrigued at the very different approaches taken to serious family problems by two equally successful plays currently on our stages. Spoiler alert: both Basil Dawkins' Pressure Drop (Little Little Theatre) and Fabian Barracks' Saving Grace (Phoenix Theatre) end happily. For those who have been following Dawkins' productions for a while - perhaps even since his first commercial one, Flatmate, in 1980 - the upbeat ending will come as no surprise. Dawkins insists that he writes 'dramedies' which see-saw between comedy and serious drama and generally climax' ' comedically'
But Pressure Drop is much more serious than comic and its grave subjects keep pushing it towards tragedy up to the last scene. In fact, as the final lights fade, we feel that the bush tonic and powder offered as a remedy to a major health problem might not be effective.
Dawkins writes that the play is about "love, family, ageing; the tensions in deep, rural, traditional Jamaican communities caused by the lure of the cities and the conflicts created by rapid changes in the culture, attitudes and values of ordinary rural folks."
More specifically, the play deals with addiction, homelessness, joblessness, intolerance, and dementia. Dawkins' metaphoric statement on the solution to those problems runs: "Love is the viable platform, forgiveness is the vehicle and optimism and diligence the track and engine."
Problems and solutions
All this might sound too weighty to be entertaining. Not so. For one, Dawkins dramatises the problems and solutions through the lives of believable characters - Papa/
Matthew (Earle Brown), his son, Luke (Canute Fagan), Luke's wife, Deslin (Maylynne Lowe) and Deslin's mother, Dotsy (Ruth Ho Shing). Thanks to the natural talent and the experience of the actors, as well as the expertise of the director, Douglas Prout, the characters come across as real people with whom we can empathise.
Secondly, the setting is a home in a traditional rural community, a home symbolised by one of those Georgian-style houses that still dot the countryside.
Set designer Patrick Russell did a fine job with it.
Thirdly, the ambient sounds (crickets, frogs, the bray of a donkey) and the music heard throughout (mento, reggae, and gospel) support the tone of the story. Light and sound designer Dorraine Reid is to be commended.
Barracks, 28, who was born about the time that Dawkins' first play was staged, told me that after producing plays primarily for high school students for the past seven years or so, he is now trying, with Saving Grace, to market his shows to adults too. Audiences the first two nights were good, he continued, and on Sunday night I saw for myself a 300-seat theatre nearly full of enthusiastic people.
Whereas Pressure Drop's playing style is realistic, that of Saving Grace is melodramatic. It's a larger-than-life, over-the- top style bordering on farce or 'Roots' that Barracks, who is both writer and director, has deliberately chosen to work in with all his productions. It works with Saving Grace, which is about the consequences of a married man keeping a girlfriend.
Barracks makes his characters, and pre-scene announcers, speak directly to the audience - 'breaking the fourth wall' in theatre parlance. The characters also consciously perform for the audience, so the helper, Miss G (Dawnette Hinds-Furzer), is introduced "bubbling" - that is, gyrating her ample behind - to a dancehall song for the audience's entertainment.
The three actresses, Hinds-Furzer, Renae Williams (Grace) and Gracia Thompson (Vivian Johnson), adopt deliberately artificial accents; Hinds-Furzer and Williams speak an extra-broad patois, while Thompson is exaggeratedly 'upper St Andrew'. The actor, John Chambers, though, acts realistically, providing a welcome foil to the others.
The melodramatic acting style has served Barracks well all these years in which his audience has been teenagers, for they love entertainment. It is the sugar which Barracks has used to sweeten the serious messages he has been feeding them about teenage pregnancy, family unity, infidelity and the like. The enthusiasm of Saving Grace's audiences indicates that Barracks' strategy also works with adults.