THEATRE REVIEW: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Sharon D. Clarke


WHERE: National Theatre

WHEN: 16/4, runs to 18/5

A look of bemusement sweeps across our young waiter’s face as he asks us the title of the play we’ve just seen – and we tell him.

  • Read on for detail of how this Olivier Award-winning revival is still winning matinee standing ovations

The Black Bottom might be more familiar to your grandparents as it was a dance that became famous in the 20s that originated among the African Americans in the south and became a national craze.

Here it is the device used to separate the diva-ish Ma Rainey (an imperious Sharon D. Clarke who originated the role of Killer Queen in Queen’s We Will Rock You) and her troubled trumpet player Levee (O.T. Fagbenle). Ma’s found fame singing the blues and she’s not about to be persuaded to record Levee’s jazz arrangement.

But this is very much the light relief of a quite substantial story about how the black community was treated at the time which reveals itself as the band, featuring Levee, prepare and take a break from their recording session.

We’ve seen quite a lot of theatre lately and a fair few matinees and this audience was considerably younger than most at many of them and far more diverse. We’d say a quarter of the audience stood at the end to give it an ovation, very rare for a matinee.

We were expecting far more Sharon D. Clarke (sounding in as fine voice as ever) but it was the authentic-sounding banter between the band (including Pure Imagination‘s Giles Terera on bass), switching from comedy to tragedy, which really struck home.

  • Picture via Facebook courtesy National Theatre. Tickets here.
  • Enjoyed this review? Follow its author on Twitter @NeilDurham

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