REVIEW – The Rolling Stone (Royal Exchange)

Fiston Barek as Dembe & Faith Omole as Wummie © Jonathan Keenan 

 Date: 24 april 2015
Upstaged rating: 

The Rolling Stone written by Chris Urch was a Bruntwood Prize Winner in 2013 – now it runs in rep alongside Anna Karenina at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Set in Uganda, where it is illegal to have a homosexual relationship, it tells the story of Dembe who has fallen in love with Irish doctor, Sam. The play centres around the true story of Ugandan newspaper, The Rolling Stone which used its front page to out gay men by publishing their names, addresses and photographs. This publicised witch-hunt incited violence against these men, their families and anybody who supported them.

“The Lord wants us to be truly who we are”

Joanna Scotcher’s set is perfectly stark, a blue carpeted stage with a simple raised platform in the centre, provides the perfect foundations for Chris Urch’s sensitive, honest and thought provoking script. Richard Owen’s lighting design is tasteful and stylish throughout – opening the production with a soft blue light, as the cast of six sing in beautiful harmony, their voices flood the stage, ironically, it all feels calm and utopian.

Robert Gilbert as Sam and Fiston Barek as Dembe  ©Jonathan Keenan
Robert Gilbert as Sam and Fiston Barek as Dembe
©Jonathan Keenan

The scenes between Dembe (Fiston Barek) and his lover, Sam (Robert Gilbert) feel natural and playful – when they are on stage together there is a great chemistry and it is these sections which generate laughter from the audience. Barek is superb in portraying Dembe’s coming of age, balancing youthful wit with bravery and sensitivity, in a society where he is fearful of his own identity. When Dembe’s brother Joe (Sule Rimi) is made pastor of the local parish, the circle of scrutiny moves uncomfortably closer to Dembe and his family. Ellen McDougall’s direction is masterfully reflective of the kind of society that the characters inhabit – the actors sit with the audience when they are not on stage, watching Dembe’s every move.

“God is a fallacy. It is us that judge one another”

The Rolling Stone is expertly cast with every member of the production giving an outstanding  performance. Despite, her lack of voice, Ony Uhiara shines as the mute character Naome, who is overshadowed by her mother, Mama played by Donna Berlin. Faith Omole impresses as Wummie, Dembe’s twin sister, a victim of her society in her own right when she forfeits her education to aid her brother.

The Rolling Stone is a powerful production and highly compelling viewing. Chris Urch’s writing really draws its audience in, this is a real edge-of-your seat captivating drama, where we can engage with the characters, empathise with their predicaments and wish that we could influence their futures.

The Rolling Stone is running at The Royal Exchange in Manchester until the 1st May 2015.

-Kristy Stott