‘Retrograde’ review – Ivanno Jeremiah is the standout star in Ryan Calais Cameron’s showbiz shouting match

★★★ 1/2

While his smash-hit play For Black Boys… continues performances on the West End, playwright Ryan Calais Cameron’s next play is playing at the Kiln Theatre on the other side of London. Exploring Black actor and change maker Sidney Poitier’s meeting with film executives pressuring him to sign a compromising contract, Retrograde is biting but brief in comparison to its more considered and comprehensive predecessor.

Set against the backdrop of McCarthyism and the rising concern over communism and civil rights, we find ourselves in the office of Mr Larry Parks (Black Mirror’s Daniel Lapaine), designed with warmth from Frankie Bradshaw with its creamy colours. He’s joined by screenwriter Bobby (Death of a Salesman’s Ian Bonar), as they await the arrival of Poitier (played by The Convert and Humans actor Ivanno Jeremiah).

Even before he shows up, however, there’s an immediate sense of atmosphere and tension established in the dialogue, as Bobby and Mr Parks crack racist jokes together. Bobby is a pushover with an affinity for epizeuxis, while Mr Parks is a more aggressive and forceful individual. When Poitier shows up, this unsettling and uncomfortable environment is only emphasised further as the pair try to endear themselves to Sidney, each line of dialogue punctuated by feigned laughter and, later, full-blown shouting and aggression. There’s a reason why Poitier walks open to the office windows and opens them on a few occasions – the situation is suffocating. An equally subtle element of this production comes in the noticeable ticking of the clock in the quieter moments, though it would have been interesting to underscore this a lot more across the play’s 90-minute duration.

It’s directed by Kiln associate director Amit Sharma, who last year staged a rushed version of The Boy With Two Hearts at the National Theatre. His Retrograde is largely shouted through, when it’s almost as if it could have chosen the moments to be particularly punchy. It doesn’t quite nail being intense throughout (for there’s back-and-forth dialogue between Poitier and Parks which is monotonous and dull around halfway through), nor does it effectively build up the aggression – almost descending into shouting far too prematurely. This is one way in which Jeremiah’s performance is the standout and simply astonishing to witness, as he plays Poitier with an intelligent and composed demeanour, and unlike the other two who snap too early, the extent to which he only becomes barbed when pushed to breaking point is devastating. His final monologue is brilliantly sharp, dismantling the people-pleasing white saviourism of Bobby and the racist paranoia of Mr Parks. The difficulty, however, is ideas of saviourism and the stereotypical depictions of Black people in 1950s Hollywood are only highlighted at the very end of the play, rather than suitably interrogated. Even a curious attempt to relate the time period to the present day ‘cancel culture’ phenomena, in a line about being held accountable for past comments, is given merely a passing reference. It just all lacks a certain depth which For Black Boys… pulls off so well.

And so it was agonising deciding what to rate Retrograde, as the performances deserve significant praise and warrant a four-star rating. Though at the same time, Sharma’s pacing and the impact that has on the weight of Cameron’s script are issues which can’t be ignored in favour of the impressive acting. Retrograde is tense, heated and stuffy, but the latter adjective also comes as a result of the play being a lot more compact than is necessary.

Retrograde is now playing at the Kiln Theatre until 27 May. All performances are audio described, with a touch tour on 18 May.

Captioned performances are scheduled for 11, 12 and 13 May, with a relaxed performance on 20 May.

Production Images: Marc Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Retrograde’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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