‘The Amen Corner’ at the Olivier Theatre

Set in the 1950s in a rundown corner church in Harlem, ‘The Amen Corner’ examines the hypocrisy, petty rivalries and envy in a small religious community.

Sister Margaret, (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is the leader of the small Pentecostal community, setting absolute and inflexible rules for her flock.  Unbending, she sows the seeds of resentment by preaching against the job driving a beer delivery truck that one member plans to apply for; Sister Margaret knows the path of righteousness and that would be an unholy thing to do.

When her long abandoned jazz musician husband turns up out of the blue, dying from TB, and her son is spotted hanging out with girls and smoking cigarettes in the street, the control Margaret has over her congregation and her own life begins to unravel.  Her absence out of town for a couple of days gives the church Elders the opportunity to plot against her.  Where did she get the money for the new refrigerator in her house? Why did she lie that her husband had left her, when she was the one who had left?  Even the good offices of her sister Odessa, a magnificently dignified Sharon D Clarke, can do nothing to prevent the usurping of her role as pastor.  When her husband, whom she is forced to admit she still loves, dies, and her son leaves her to go on tour playing jazz, she is left bereft, and only then realises that the only way to follow the true path of good is to love people.

The action is played out on a double-storey set; upstairs the meeting room for the church, with a cramped downstairs, dominated by the controversial refrigerator, where Sister Margaret lives with her son and Odessa.  The play begins and ends with gospel singing, even before the lights have dimmed the songs have started, and music punctuates the evening.  Even when they are not in church, songs, for which everyone knows the words, seep into everyday encounters.

But it is when they are singing in church that all the participants throw themselves wholeheartedly into the singing; their bodies bend and twist emphasising the energy and power of the message.  And this physicality is thrown into high relief when, at the climax of the play, Sister Margaret sits quietly weeping by the body of her dead husband in the downstairs flat, her vanquisher, Sister Moore (Cecilia Noble) who has morphed seamlessly from sycophantically devout follower to viciously ambitious rival, leads the congregation in an ecstatic, stomping, clapping victory chant.

I thought all the performances were fantastic, big and brash when that was needed, and subtle and affecting in the smaller yet more significant moments.  And the singing was foot tapping, hand clapping inspiring.  The nasty gossiping, the hypocrisy, and nursing of seemingly trivial grievances into justifications to topple Sister Margaret are brilliantly done, recognisable from any environment where people compete with each other for any kind of authority or preferment.

The National Theatre is on a bit of a roll at the moment, and this is another great show.

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