Ryan Calais Cameron is having quite a year, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. This spring, his breakout play For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy completed its journey from fringe to West End. Now he has given us something utterly different, and even more brilliant. Retrograde is a crisp three-hander that propels him “to the front rank” of British playwrights. “Even-handed and light of touch”, the drama – about an incident in the early career of the actor Sidney Poitier – has echoes of today’s “cancel culture” debates. Yet it “rigorously honours its 1950s setting, attaining a peak of articulate defiance that recalls Arthur Miller’s The Crucible”. Yes, it’s “that good”.
The set-up sees rising star Poitier arrive at a film studio’s offices expecting to sign a contract, said Clive Davis in The Times. Instead, he’s told to put his name to a loyalty pledge and denounce Paul Robeson, a “role model to generations of black performers”, for his communist sympathies. The “electrifying drama” that unfolds has “the pace of a thriller, and is written in a heightened, brutal form of classic, snappy movie dialogue”, said Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard. Ivanno Jeremiah gives a “magnificent” performance of great strength and delicacy as Poitier. And there’s excellent support from Ian Bonar as Poitier’s screenwriter friend Bobby, and Daniel Lapaine as the bullying NBC lawyer, Parks.
This is a “rousing and propulsive” 90-minute show that should have a dazzling commercial future, said Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out. I can imagine it being produced on Broadway as a “star vehicle” for a big-name actor. Yet ultimately it’s a good play, not a great one. The Bobby and Parks characters need a bit more depth and richness. But the real problem is that the ending (no spoilers) “feels like a fudge”. Poitier was not blacklisted, and Cameron’s drive to build up this incident “into an operatic battle for Poitier’s soul – complete with appropriately thunderous speeches – ultimately feels overwrought”. So no, Retrograde is not his masterpiece. “But it effortlessly seals his reputation as a major talent.”
Kiln Theatre, London NW6 (020-7328 1000; kilntheatre.com). Until 27 May. Rating ****