Re-telling Ira Aldridge’s incredible story has been a real labour of love for Lolita Chakrabarti. Starting life as a potential screenplay in the late 90s it evolved, perhaps quite naturally, into a theatre script which was first performed at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre in 2012. It returned two years later, and then transferred over to St Ann’s Warehouse in New York, Aldridge’s place of birth. As a late addition to Kenneth Branagh’s Garrick residency, Ira has made his return to London’s West End after 183 long years.
The story itself is so remarkable that you have to remind yourself that these events actually took place. Red Velvet revolves mostly around one key, defining time in Aldridge’s life, bookended by the actor near the end of his life. The final scene is so cleverly done, and so shocking, that it really does make your jaw drop.
Some of the themes mentioned, almost in passing, are incredibly pertinent – and, surprisingly, have not been altered in light of recent events. One brilliant line regarding Russia’s “nervous leaders”, and several allusions to migration. As well as the radical issue of his race, Aldridge’s nationality was a problem; an American coming over and taking a British actor’s job.
I love the transitions between scenes. Some wonderful music composed by Paul Englishby (recently involved the the RSC’s King and Country season) and artful choreography from Imogen Knight – it disguises the set changes and allows a brief bit of an emotional insight into Aldridge’s mind.
The set is beautifully simplistic: very few props, moved on & off stage by the cast, and a single red velvet curtain providing the backdrop. It feels very at home in the Garrick, with its red interior and theatrical pedigree. The historic setting in which to tell this historic story is a perfect match.
Adrian Lester’s performance in the lead role is simply extraordinary. Whilst Aldridge is obviously a victim of the age he lived in, that doesn’t mean he was perfect. Lester portrays him as the man he most probably was: a passionate rule-breaker, committed to his art. There is a powerfully charged two-hander scene towards the end, between Aldridge & Pierre Laporte (Emun Elliott), that shows this completely. Two actors absolutely at the top of their game.
The rest of the cast is wonderful, particularly in rehearsal scenes where we’re treated to the dated acting style of the mid 19th century, which is often very comical. It is Lester, though, who stands out – quite rightly. He allows Aldridge’s story to be played out sympathetically, and with a real emotional energy, worthy of the man himself.
My verdict? A vital story, brought vividly to life, that needs to be heard by as many people as possible in its very limited West End run.