The production of Running with Lions marks a series of firsts …
It is writer, Sian Carter’s, first play; Talawa Theatre Company’s first co-production with Lyric Hammersmith, and The Lyric’s first play in its 2022 season. Rightfully so, it has attracted a lot of buzz, appearing on many ‘Plays to Watch in 2022’ lists.
Talawa has been at the forefront of supporting emerging Black talent with notable alumni including Michaela Coel coming through their programmes, and their championing influence can be felt here with Running With Lions. Carter first participated in Talawa’s Writers Café in 2020, Running With Lions was then produced as a 30-minute radio play on BBC Four and is now showing in its entirety. As an aspiring writer, it is inspiring and affirming to see its evolution.
Running With Lions centres on a Black Caribbean family still battling with the loss of their youngest son Joshy (Nickcolia King-N’da) who died in a car accident. Whilst parents Maxwell (Wil Johnson) and Shirley (Suzette Llewellyn) bury their grief by focusing on supporting their granddaughter Imani (Ruby Barker) through her last year of secondary school. They are forced to reckon with this grief when their daughter, Gloria (Velile Tshabalala), returns home after a stay at a mental health hospital.
The importance of family is established from the outset as the play starts with a flashback between brother and sister. Here the chemistry between King-N’da and Tshabalala is light and playful as they tease each other about their romantic lives and reminisce on their childhood as Gloria prepares to move in with her fiancé.
For a plot that pivots mainly around the death of the beloved brother, Joshy, he only makes an appearance a handful of times. Here, I think was the play’s major flaw as the character of Joshy didn’t feel fully realised. In each of his ‘guest appearances, he appears as a one-dimensional jovial figure. In a scene where he visits his father as a spirit in the hospital, King-N’da could have delivered the lines with more punch, notably ‘Why would you believe in a God that would take me away from you?’. Instead, this line is felt more like a pondering statement rather than a jaded comment from someone who died both tragically and young.
Given that the play explores Joshy’s disinterest in following in his father’s footsteps to become a pastor, it’s not convincing that in the afterlife, he’d be so happy with death or with God either. As he was absent for most of the play, I would argue that Joshy didn’t need to be in it, because as an audience member, I found it hard to long for his presence in the same way that his family did. Perhaps if he wasn’t physically present at all, the ghost of him would have lingered a bit more. A scene where his mother Shirley explains the last night that she saw him would have been more powerful if this was enacted, or if Joshy was sitting on the stairs overhearing his mother.
In terms of performances, I really liked how Llewellyn held the physicality of Shirley’s grief throughout, it weighed her down as she walked and moved. Barker was convincing and compelling as a 16-year-old – petulant at times, at others, defiant. Johnson’s Maxwell was a standout for me. He had the charm and swagger of an old Caribbean man whilst capturing the inspired nature of preachers and spiritual leaders. When he discusses his difficulty with grieving, his battle between his grief and his faith is palpable.
Carter makes good use of Running With Lions’ 2 hours, exploring multiple storylines, however, I do think this contributed to the play’s lack of momentum, as it felt more like a collection of scenes rather than a fluid piece of work. This sort of vignette-style could have worked well particularly given the role memory plays in grief, but this wasn’t fully developed.
Personally, I am interested in the way that time collapses when a person dies, but this story needed to establish a clearer timeline for its audience – When exactly did Joshy die? How long have they been grieving him for? When did Gloria go away? The timing of all of these events dramatically impacts Imani’s big announcement.
The ages of the siblings inform their relationship and could establish closeness, illustrating how long Gloria has lived without her best friend and brother. Without this clear delineation, in retrospect, the flashback scene at the start seemed unnecessary. The packed plot also did a disservice to other important themes, particularly Gloria’s journey with bipolar disorder. I understood the dramatic function that this storyline served but it interrupted the overarching grief arc. Considering the effects of mental health in the Black community, maybe the storyline needed to give it more space to breathe rather than cursory mentions during moments of confrontation.
The ending of the play does offer some sort of resolution and although it was affirming to see a happy Black family onstage, it felt too saccharine. Given that the family has been grappling with unspoken grief for years, the ending felt too neat.
Despite its kinks, Sian Carter’s debut play is full of promise and I am optimistic for what she will create in the future. Running with Lions is definitely a must-see for its occasional moments of sparkle as well as its platforming of emerging Black playwrights.
Running With Lions 10 Feb – 12 Mar @ Lyric Hammersmith. More info here