'Daddy': 'Bold but thinly developed melodrama of sex, race and art'

Daddy at the Almeida. Claes Bang and Terique Jarrett

Daddy at the Almeida. Claes Bang and Terique Jarrett - Credit: Marc Brenner

"Daddy"
Almeida Theatre
***

Originally scheduled for 2020, the buzz was palpable on press night for the London opening of American playwright Jeremy O Harris’s long-awaited melodrama.

And no wonder. Lush velvet curtains part to reveal a modernist Bel Air pad with a Hockney-esque water filled pool. Seamy sexual antics, a trio of gospel singers as a Greek chorus and full frontal nudity swiftly follow.

But for emotional impact, life in melodramatic Technicolor needs to be grounded. O Harris wrote “Daddy” before his much-lauded Slave Play. Here, the central dynamic is boldly established but thinly developed: Franklin, (Terique Jarrett - superb), a gifted young Black artist wakes in the luxurious home of older, white art collector Andre (Claes Bang).

Daddy at the Almeida. T'Shan Williams, Sharlene Whyte (background), Terique Jarrett, Rebecca Bernice Amissah

Daddy at the Almeida. T'Shan Williams, Sharlene Whyte (background), Terique Jarrett, Rebecca Bernice Amissah - Credit: Marc Brenner

Still high on MDMA, the two energetically debate the commodification of art and the dubious system of patronage. Andre’s desire for Franklin’s boyish Black body is blatant; in a shocking show of racial appropriation he nicknames him Naomi after the supermodel’s thighs.

But Franklin soon finds the glamour, infantilizing fantasy, and role-playing – thumb sucking, spanking – seductive, plus Andre’s controlling behaviour (a subtly creepy turn from Bang) is hard to manage. Franklin’s devoted mother Zora turns up in preacher-mode to wrestle his soul from Andre (a dazzling Sharlene Whyte) and his materialistic best friends also chip in (John McCrea and Ioanna Kimbook, both excellent.)

But their values are as thin as their skimpy swimwear. The Faustian pact has gone too far. Salvation cannot be found through endless pool dunking – the metaphor is liberally splashed about. Only by purging his childhood trauma – the spectre of a drunk, absent father – and creating some dolls with dubious racial associations for his upcoming exhibition, can Franklin perhaps break free.

Terique Jarrett in Daddy at The Almeida Islington 2022

Terique Jarrett in Daddy at The Almeida - Credit: Marc Brenner

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Certainly, Andre’s wobbly rendition of George Michael’s Father Figure from the pool – a theatrical highpoint – isn’t enough to provide the emotional boost he needs.

“Daddy” delivers more on the thrills – wittily observed, sniping dialogue, surreal moments given anarchic zip by director Danya Taymor – and too little on the terrors. The ghostly-lit, silent scene transitions offer a greater sense of danger than any of the over-written confrontations.

Daddy is at the Almeida Theatre until April 30.