Photo credit: Suzette Llewellyn, Ruby Barker, Velile Tshabalala in Running With Lions (Photo by Jahvin Morgan Photography)

'Running With Lions' review — a lovingly crafted intergenerational family drama

Ava Wong Davies
Ava Wong Davies

Oddly enough, the classic family drama has become increasingly hard to come by in post-pandemic London theatre. Sian Carter's debut play, developed and co-produced by Talawa Theatre, steps into that gap in the market with relish.

Carter assembles her chess pieces on the board carefully: single mother Gloria (Velile Tshabalala), returns from a stint in a mental health clinic to her parents' home, where her sixteen-year-old daughter, Imani (Ruby Barker), longs to study art in America. Gloria's parents, the matriarch Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn) and reverend Maxwell (Will Johnson), still refuse to mourn the death of their son and Gloria's brother, Joshua (Nickcolia King N'da), much to Gloria's displeasure, and over the course of a few days, old rifts come to the surface.

A lovingly crafted piece about generational differences and the necessity and failings of faith, it's still a familiar set-up. Some of the narrative peaks and troughs do feel a little rote: a moment of family harmony is quickly punctured by a point of discord, and so on. But, then again, those tropes (an absent figure returning home, a family papering over the cracks of a long ago trauma) are imbued by Carter with a good helping of warmth and detail, even if it can feel a little choppy at times.

Running with Lions began its life as a Radio 4 play, and elements of that still linger in this full production: Carter can lean on exposition as a rapid, if trite, means of introducing ideas and characters, and the play's second half is packed with recriminations and subsequent explanations that lessen in potency with every new argument.

Some of the character work, however, really does shine: Maxwell and Shirley are a carefully, finely drawn couple — together for decades, with still-warm affection for one another, but with a tendency to drown out any real grievances in their relationship by relying on nostalgic reminiscence.

Llewellyn imbues Shirley with the kind of tamped down anxiety that stems from love and grief, but which can calcify into an unthinking harshness. It is Johnson as Maxwell, however, who really excels: Johnson gives Maxwell a relentless sunniness which masks a quiet, agonising crisis of faith, and together, the pair have a sparkling chemistry.

Angela Gasparetto's movement direction is playful and vivid: indeed, the moments where the family dance and relish in the music that plays on Maxwell's record player are some of the most poignant and joyful.

Soutra Gilmour's twinkling revolve combines a naturalistic living room set with a hint of starry magic, and there is a real generosity to Michael Buffong's direction: an evident affection for the text and characters and a desire to play it out towards the audience as much as possible — though his direction can feel a touch broad at times, with a few of the climactic moments becoming overwrought in their intensity.

In its final scene, however, Running with Lions manages to reach a point of such compassion in its melding of music, movement, and togetherness, that one can't help but leave on a wave of goodwill.

Running With Lions is at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre to 12 March. Book Running With Lions tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Suzette Llewellyn, Ruby Barker, Velile Tshabalala in Running With Lions (Photo by Jahvin Morgan Photography)

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