Review: THE BOOK OF GRACE, Arcola Theatre

Suzan-Lori Parks' The Book of Grace receives its UK premiere.

By: May. 21, 2024
Review: THE BOOK OF GRACE, Arcola Theatre
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Review: THE BOOK OF GRACE, Arcola Theatre In Suzan-Lori ParksThe Book of Grace, familial tensions hold a mirror to wider societal issues. Set against the Mexico-US border, this kitchen sink drama is just as much about what is happening beyond the four walls of the familial home as what is happening inside. 

The story begins when Buddy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) turns up at the door of the home of his absentee Father, Vet (Peter de Jersey), and stepmother, Grace (Ellena Vincent). Vet, a border control officer, is set to receive an award for his services, and while Buddy was invited by Grace to join in the celebrations, his true intentions are a little muddied - unclear even to him. He wants to be able to forgive his father. He wants him to help him get a job. But more than anything, he wants revenge. 

Described as a “portrait of a divided nation,” each family member falls into a specific archetype. Buddy is a young, once-promising man who has been corrupted by a real, palpable anger. Softer moments within the play allow for his innocence to shine through, glimpses of the man he could be if not weighed down by the shadow of his past - a shadow that often takes on the form of his father. Vet is outwardly aggressive, a giant presence on the stage, downing beers and sharing his “morals” with the audience as he prepares a speech for the award ceremony. Grace is the true “innocent,” friendly, affectionate, smiling despite the situations she finds herself in, and writing a book about all the good things in the world. 

Review: THE BOOK OF GRACE, Arcola Theatre

Throughout, the entire trio of performers give incredibly compelling performances. Vincent is masterful in her portrayal of Grance, bringing nuance to a character who could otherwise appear to be nothing more than a mediator between Father and Son. Soon, it becomes clear that she wears her innocence as a shield and that her smiles are part of a cleverly deployed survival tactic. Francis-Swaby is as charismatic and charming as Buddy, a character you begin to root for, allowing for some uncomfortable moments later in the play when the character's softer side shifts into something more menacing. 

Review: THE BOOK OF GRACE, Arcola Theatre

De Jersey gives a faultless performance as Vet. Finding depth in the villainy, De Jersey commands attention throughout. His monologues throughout, framed as brief snippets of the speech he will deliver at his award ceremony, are delivered with a chilling sincerity, especially as it becomes clear he means every word he says.

The explosive family drama, directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr, does not shy away from violence, something which can be difficult to present on a stage that feels as intimate as the Arcola. With some audience members situated directly on the stage, there’s nowhere to hide, and violence is delivered unflichingly and within the second act without any sort of reprieve. 

Review: THE BOOK OF GRACE, Arcola Theatre

The staging (William Fricker and Rae Smith), lighting (David Howe), and practical effects are also worth noting: bringing a family home to life in surprising ways. Running taps, screeching kettles and a fully functioning kitchen ground the drama in new and surprising ways - especially when the lighting calls attention to the hole Vet is digging in his garden.

Fourteen years have passed since The Book of Grace premiered in the state. However, the themes explored in this familial drama have only become more relevant in recent years, making for an incredibly gripping and crucial piece of theatre.

The Book of Grace is at the Arcola Theatre until 8 June.

Photo credits: Alex Brenner



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