Review | The Long Song at Chichester Festival Theatre: 'Well worth the wait'

When I think of period dramas set in the early 1800s, what first comes to mind are ringlet-haired debutantes gossiping about eligible bachelors over copious amounts of tea and cake.

Friday, 8th October 2021, 1:38 pm
Tara Tijani (centre, as July), Perola Congo and Trevor Laird in The Long Song at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Tara Tijani (centre, as July), Perola Congo and Trevor Laird in The Long Song at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Manuel Harlan

So essentially, Jane Austen.

But The Long Song challenged my distinctly whitewashed view with the tale of July, a Jamaican woman who was a former slave, a housekeeper, lover and mother.

Local playwright Suhayla El-Bushra’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel is a long time coming, having originally been slated for its world premiere in 2020.

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Llewella Gidon as Old July in The Long Song at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo by Manuel Harlan

But it was well worth the wait.

Worn by age but still sharp as a tack, July recalls her birth, childhood and young adulthood to a man who has come looking for her.

Her tale is full of the oppressive horrors of slavery, which are echoed in a more subversive and malevolent way post emancipation. But unlike many other dramatisations I’ve seen tackling the issue, it somehow manages to also be light-hearted and at times very funny.

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There is a warped Upstairs Downstairs dynamic between the workers and their ‘masters’ Caroline Mortimer and Robert Goodwin, with humour to be found in the quiet moments of resistance – like using a bedsheet instead of a lace tablecloth for a fancy dinner.

Similarly, typical period drama tropes of class and matchmaking are given a fresh perspective through July’s rivalry with the light-skinned racial snob Miss Clara.

Llewella Gideon (as old July) and Tara Tijani (as her younger self) both excel in capturing the attitude and confidence of July, making me root for her from the off.

And like any good book, I didn’t want it to end.

But when this did come, it felt somewhat unexpected and incomplete, my only qualm with the whole production.

As is said in the play, July’s story is crying out to be told – and if this was a novel, it would be a bestselling page-turner.

Until Saturday, October 23.

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