Pros: Fantastic leading actors, plus songs which perfectly capture the struggle and torment faced by slaves of the 1800s.
Cons: The space is a bit small for the scope of the production; if in the front row, keep your feet tucked in!
Dessa Rose is the latest production from director Andrew Keates starring Cassidy Janson and Cynthia Erivo, adapted from Sherley Anne Williams’ novel. It tells the story of a young black slave named Dessa Rose and a young white woman from Charleston named Ruth. The stories of the two girls run parallel to each other, emphasising some very vast differences and occasional similarities between their lives. Both feel lost and lonely having lost the men they love in very different circumstances – still their social-economic and racial identities put them worlds apart.
A bare stage with only a few wooden boxes and chains hung from the ceiling make up the set, creates a dark and dingy environment and sets the scene for the story of black slaves in America. The chains act as a constant reminder of the oppression people suffered.
The production, with music and lyrics by leading theatrical song-writing team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, begins with Dessa revealing to her partner Kane (Fela Lufadeju) and mother Rose (Miquel Brown) that she is pregnant and determined to keep the baby, though she will not name the child until she is free from slavery. Following an altercation during which Kane is killed by the master of the farm, Dessa leads a slave rebellion which eventually leads to her being placed in prison where she will stay until she gives birth before being hung for her crimes. Ruth, on the other hand comes from a privileged family in Charleston and marries Bertie Sutton (John Addison) before moving to his farm at the Glenn. After having a daughter, Clara, Bertie begins to spend more and more time away from his wife before it is revealed he is a gambler and is in serious debt. It looks doubtful that he will ever return, so in the meantime Ruth offers work to those black people who ask for it after venturing past her farm, eventually connecting her to the escaped Dessa, and from there their stories intertwine.
I was impressed throughout by the strong performances and inspired music that carried the story and captured the experience of the torment faced by slaves. The only disappointment came in the lack of space, meaning that the production felt somewhat restricted and less powerful than perhaps it should have been but choreographer Sam Spencer Lane uses the space to the best of its ability.
Dean Austin as Associate Musical Director does a fantastic job of leading the accompanying string and wind instruments while playing the keyboard, though I felt that with the keyboard and cello being placed on stage, there was even less space for the cast to perform. The performances by the leads and ensemble cast were fantastic and the combined talents of Janson and Erivo make for a passionate and honest tale. Dessa Rose is very emotionally charged and I have to admit to getting choked up during the final rendition of ‘We Are Descended’.
Dessa Rose a grand and charged story of human experience and struggle, featuring a wildly talented cast and creative team, and well worth working into your schedule.
Director: Andrew Keates
Author: Lynn Ahrens
Composer: Stephen Flaherty
Producers: Arion Productions Ltd
Booking Until: 30 August 2014
Box Office: 0844 871 7632
Booking Link: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/dessa-rose/trafalgar-studios