The European Première of Dessa Rose playing at the Trafalgar Studios, London

'Dessa Rose' at the Trafalgar Studios until 30th August 2014

5 stars for 'Dessa Rose'
Cynthia Erivo (Dessa Rose) and Cassidy Janson (Ruth) star in 'Dessa Rose' at the Trafalgar Studios, London
Cynthia Erivo (Dessa Rose) and Cassidy Janson (Ruth) star in 'Dessa Rose' at the Trafalgar Studios, London

Starring: Cynthia Erivo (Dessa Rose) and Cassidy Janson (Ruth) with John Addison, Edward Baruwa, Sharon Benson, Miquel Brown, Alexander Evans, Cameron Leigh, Fela Lufadeju, Gabriel Mokake, Abiona Omonua and Jon Robyns.

Slavery in 1846 pre-Civil War Deep South America doesn’t initially sound like the best theme for a musical, but Arion Productions has created an enthralling, edge-of-the-seat epic on stage drama. Written by multi-award winning songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and based on the original best-selling novel by Sherley Anne Williams, ‘Dessa Rose’ is a gripping story about the horrors of slavery, prejudice, friendships through hardship, unrest and the eventual quest for acceptance on the road to freedom. Above all ‘Dessa Rose’ is a story about strength during adversity. Some of the themes are current today and ever more so when we live in such troubled, persecutory, difficult political times. Trafalgar Studios sees older and younger generations of different races flocking to see this production. The musical is timely since it follows hot on the heels of films such as ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ and ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’. Cynthia Erivo who starred as Celie in John Doyle’s London Première of ‘The Colour Purple’ over at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year gives an electrifying performance as the young African American woman in the title role.

I initially wondered how such an epic adventure novel could be translated onto the stage, particularly a story that is action packed. The original storyline is also based on historical events, including that of a pregnant slave woman who led a revolt against slave traders and a white woman who looked after runaway slaves. The musical adaptation captures how the two women form a friendship that leads them on a pathway to acceptance and liberty.

Producer Andrew Harmer and Director Andrew Keates have taken a fascinating story that will certainly chime with cinemagoers as well as theatregoers. Keates has created a Hollywood musical drama experience on stage, yet with none of the gloss of lavish sets or scene changes. The success of this is based solely on the cast’s abilities and talents which they all possess in spades. Keates has concentrated on drawing out the full potential of the entire cast to give the illusion of watching something much more panoramic and spectacular. It’s exceptionally clever directing, particularly when working in such a small studio space.

Andrew Keates is joined by Jennifer Bakst (Associate Director) on this production and together they have included as much historical detail as possible including working in the actions of the slave cotton pickers into the cast. The tight choreography by Sam Spencer Lane and historical costume design by Philippa Batt helps to add more interest in the absence of a set.

The main success of this musical is purely and simply down to the talent of the two lead roles and supporting cast. Cynthia Erivo gives a consistently strong performance that will leave you open-mouthed, particularly during the first half when Dessa faces horrific brutality at the hands of her captors, is put in a torturous sweatbox, falls pregnant, is incarcerated in leg irons and sentenced to death. I won’t give away the rest of her story but it’s not for the faint-hearted. ‘Dessa Rose’ is raw and Andrew Keates explained how he wanted to show the hardship these slaves faced adding as much detail as possible to bring their plight home to audiences…and it hits hard. ‘Dessa Rose’ is a window into a tragic time in history and it’s important we remember this since it didn’t happen very long ago. Cynthia Erivo portrays Dessa as steely, proud and dignified when faced with her fate. Dessa is not going to show any fear to her captors, neither will she lose sight of her own value and self-worth despite the mental pressure of clearly being in mourning for her family and freedom. Erivo’s regal, stunning Bambi-eyed appearance is the perfect veil to defy her merciless captors and her voice is beyond sublime as the rainbow sounds of soul, blues and folk pours over the audience. This isn’t just a performance, Cynthia Erivo lives and breathes the spirit of this fearless slave girl and casts a spell over the entire audience. Her rendition of ‘Twelve Children’ when Dessa remembers her mother and siblings is the most heart-rending song in this musical. It’s also the first time we glimpse her inner thoughts of psychological anguish at being torn from a loving family and ending up in jail. It’s important to remember that slaves were ripped away from their families, manacled, abused and marched in chain gangs where they were forced to work in the Cotton Belt and plantations to live out their days toiling in fields. They had no idea where their brothers or sisters ended up or what their own fate would be. Ahrens and Flaherty have written songs that encapsulate strong narrative to explore thought. ‘We Are Descended’ is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard recently and is certainly memorable.

Cassidy Janson gives an equally flawless performance in her role as Charleston belle Ruth, a white woman, who is trapped in a disastrous marriage and yearns for liberation and acceptance. Fate brings Dessa to her doorstep and Ruth forms a sisterly bond with the slave girl who she just wants to look after and befriend as an equal. Cassidy portrays Ruth as a strong yet emotional lonely figure who yearns for friendship. Her vulnerability looks set to lead her into dangerous waters and that’s where the level-headed Dessa is able to help step in and protect her. Cassidy Janson’s Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara accent is perfect in this role but unlike Scarlett, Ruth is not self-centred or spoiled – her life is merely dictated by the conventions on which dress to wear or which linen to use. Cassidy completely inhabits this enchanting complex soul, maintaining an emotional, teary-eyed, ethereal performance which is evenly balanced against Dessa’s calm exterior.

Edward Baruwa brings both comedy and charm to this production in his role as Nathan, a gallant slave with a twinkle in his eye. Baruwa’s Nathan is a charming, protective bear and is therefore the perfect antidote to two women who are weighed down by their pasts, emotions, anguish and losses. Ultimately that leads to a complex situation. Nathan’s voice has a rich seductive quality flitting from soul to blues and he livens up the second act adding warmth and humour as the storyline lifts from horror to adventure. Baruwa is clearly an outstanding, beguiling character actor who engages with the whole audience in this animated performance and he definitely tugs the heartstrings.

Jon Robyns is another shining light in ‘Dessa Rose’ taking on the role of journalist Adam Nehemiah. During the first act Robyns depicts Nehemiah as a cold, calculating snake who wields his arrogance and charm like a weapon over Dessa’s head. Robyns builds on the intensity between him and Dessa Rose as he scribes her story in exchange that once she gives birth and is hung, her child would at least know her mother’s life. The dynamics between Jon Robyns and Cynthia Erivo is magnetic. Robyns matches Erivo’s cool gaze as the power struggle between the couple grows. Robyns is sensational as his character obsesses about Dessa to the point of madness. Robyns gives an outstanding performance.

Other supporting cast members who gave incredibly strong performances are: John Addison (Bertie/Sheriff Hughes/Trader Wilson/Auctioneer), Sharon Benson (Dorcas/Gemina/Janet), Miquel Brown (Rose/Tina/Ada/Auntie Chole), Alexander Evans (Robert Steele/Auctioneer/Mr. Oscar/Sheriff Pine), Cameron Leigh (Ruth’s Mother/Mrs. Steele/Susannah), Fela Lufadeju (Kaine/Eric/Philip), Gabriel Mokake (Harker/Joseph) and Abiona Omonua (Field Hand/Annabel/Dessa’s Daughter). The casting by Benjamin Newsome is spot on.

The musicians are on stage during the performance and despite the stage at times seeming a little cramped, the sound is exactly the right pitch for the actors. Trafalgar Studios doesn’t have another room for the band so Musical Director Dean Austin and James Nicholson (Sound Designer) have done a grand job in making this work well in the studio space. There is also the wonderful sound of an African drum.

Set design has been kept to a minimum which enables the twelve strong cast to move freely in the small space but Garance Marneur (Designer) has made use of props and chains to add depth and interest. Focus has been placed on the lighting (Neill Brinkworth) with different colours used to maximise the changing scenes and emotions which works brilliantly and gives the illusion of space.

Dessa Rose has clearly been produced and directed from the heart. Andrew Harmer and Andrew Keates are continuing to produce intelligent theatre that is innovative, thought-provoking and more importantly continuously challenges ideas, misconceptions and boundaries in society. Arion Productions has once again produced work that resonates with many different audiences.

Online Tickets: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/dessa-rose/trafalgar-studios/

Running time: 2h 15m

Adult themes

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