The week in theatre: Retrograde; The Secret Life of Bees; Dixon and Daughters – review

I have always assumed that one chief sign of a strong dramatist was instant recognisability. Yet Ryan Calais Cameron is proving his talent by showing how elastic it is. His astonishing For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, now wowing the West End, is intense, inward – and danced as much as spoken. His new play is utterly different: socially engaged, skilfully recreating a historic encounter and driven by rapid-fire dialogue.

Opening in the week of Harry Belafonte’s death, Amit Sharma’s fleet production of Retrograde strikes with particular force. Set in the 50s, the action draws on the real-life hounding of black actors during the McCarthyite era, in particular the pressure – essentially, do this or you won’t work – put on Sidney Poitier to denounce the glorious singer, actor and campaigner Paul Robeson.

Two white men, studio lawyer and scriptwriter, whisky to hand, discuss the casting of an actor in a new movie: “He’s not even Harry Belafonte black. He’s black black.” Frankie Bradshaw’s design nails the period, with glass-panelled door, sunburst clock, Abbott and Costello poster. Cameron’s dialogue nails the braggadocio: “Your arse must be pretty jealous of your mouth with all the shit that’s coming out of it.” Ian Bonar, feeble and weaselly as the would-be liberal scriptwriter, and Daniel Lapaine, blatantly bullying (not in a passive-aggressive way), are highly watchable, though both would be more persuasive if they brought it down a notch or two.

Then the door opens, and guess who’s coming to the drama? Ivanno Jeremiah is a revelation as Poitier: commanding, until he is suddenly at bay. What begins as relaxed alertness becomes, with a small shift of his shoulders, a defeated slump – and finally turns to a bold declaration of an actual speech made by Poitier. Retrograde is not nuanced: it is forthright, near-polemical. It is a polemic we need.

Racism in the US also drives the action of The Secret Life of Bees (2019), set in the south in 1964, adapted by Lynn Nottage from Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, with music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Whitney White’s production of its UK premiere buzzes with potential.

Eleanor Worthington-Cox is piquant as a motherless white teenager regularly whacked by her fist-happy father. Rousing, bold-voiced Abiona Omonua is her black maid, whacked by society: setting out to register for her newly granted vote, she is beaten up by white men. They run away together to seek sanctuary in an all-female bee-keeping haven.

As a playwright, Nottage has provided some of the outstanding dramas of the past decade (not least in Intimate Apparel, slightly underrated in the UK). Sheik’s score is lively with banjo and gospel and blues. Here are voices full of edge and vision, while Shelley Maxwell’s vivacious choreography allows Noah Thomas to excel. Yet despite some memorable sung moments – particularly the strutting defiance in Sign My Name – it is an evening that pleases rather than punches. There is nothing secret about the overhanging metaphor: bees, with their healing honey, offer a model of cooperation. The black female community, though sometimes stirringly spiky, contains too much predictable ululating. Soutra Gilmour’s honeycomb design, which includes beautiful bee trays, is dominated by a golden-framed cottage with a whiff of gingerbread. The drama ends – like The Wizard of Oz – on the word “home”. Too much sweetness, not enough sting.

Compressed in a small space, exploding out of it and sailing high, Róisín McBrinn’s production of Dixon and Daughters is the perfect expression of its characters. Deborah Bruce’s new play, with an all-female cast, tells the story of women who have been subjected to terrible domestic violence, and who – mostly – begin to free themselves.

The play is the result of Bruce’s work as writer in residence with Clean Break, the theatre company founded in 1979 by two women in prison who aimed to change the lives of women with “experience of the criminal justice system”.

You might take from it a sense of the myriad different reactions to violence or the way families conceal and transmit hurt. Yet what comes before the lessons are sensations: a mixture of cosiness and fear that barrels off the stage. Kat Heath’s design of a snug two-storey house is shafted and spooked by Paule Constable’s lighting and quaked by Sinéad Diskin’s soundscape.

Translucent panes turn the people into ghosts of themselves; a dainty, peach-coloured bedroom is suffused by a sinister glow; a washing machine suddenly turns into a headlight. This household of secrets continually surprises. Not least in the mixture of terror and humour in dialogue and plot, a mixture carried off coolly by a first-rate cast. Here everyone appears quite differently at the beginning and end of a short hour and a half.

From left: Alison Fitzjohn (Briana), Bríd Brennan (Mary) and Posy Sterling (Leigh) in Dixon And Daughters.
Alison Fitzjohn, Bríd Brennan and Posy Sterling in Dixon and Daughters: ‘barrels off the stage’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Who would guess the position that Briana – born Tina – comes finally to occupy: played with authority by Alison Fitzjohn, she is alarming and ridiculous, looming from the dark like a vampire (“I come in peace”), going on to spout torrents of therapy-speak, yet ending with calm authority. Who would think that the matriarch – performed with snapping tautness by Bríd Brennan, first seen worn down by a three-month sentence, could describe with such crispness the effects of minute coercion and control. And who would think that a great burst of comic relief would come from Posy Sterling, who is brought in, sodden and desperate, rasping and wild, and who roars with laughter when described as an “innocent girl”. Strong stuff, delivered with unexpected twists.

Star ratings (out of five)
Retrograde ★★★★
The Secret Life of Bees ★★★
Dixon and Daughters ★★★★