Red Velvet’s West End debut has been a long time coming and it’s worth the wait.
First staged at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012, it stars Adrian Lester as New York actor Ira Aldridge who made history only to be written out of it. When Aldridge played Othello in 1833, he was the first black actor to tread the boards of one of London’s patent theatres. He lasted just two nights.
Red Velvet opens in a dressing room in a Polish backwater in 1867. Aldridge is an old man – poorly, crotchety and still garnering rave reviews after 30 years on tour. The next scene rewinds to 1833. Out in the streets, Londoners are rioting, demanding the abolition of slavery. Inside Covent Garden theatre, the company is without a leading man after the collapse of hallowed thespian Edmund Kean: who will replace him?
The play’s the thing; Covent Garden company contemplate their new lead
This is first play by actress Lolita Chakrabarti – Adrian Lester’s wife – who can currently be seen in ITV’s Beowulf. It’s a passion project that she had almost despaired of realising. In the end, Red Velvet was rescued from a dusty drawer by old-fashioned nepotism: a good friend who happened to be Chakrabarti’s script-editor was appointed artistic director of the Tricycle.
Of course, a worthy play doesn’t necessarily mean a great one. This is both: heartbreaking and hilarious by turns. Chakrabarti’s dialogue is slick and playful, especially when the company set about over-acting Othello with their new leading man.
Like the Shakespearean tragedies that Aldridge favours (and which take centre-stage on occasion), the show rests on Lester’s shoulders – and he proves himself more than equal to the task. His Aldridge is no saint. This is a rich character study of a man destroyed by racism.
Nearly two centuries on, Red Velvet is also sadly pertinent. Only consider the current furore over the Oscars. Or how long it took a well-connected actress to put Aldridge back on stage. Let’s hope this short run – part of Kenneth Branagh Company’s year-long residency at The Garrick – isn’t his last.