One of the Coen Brothers (many) much discussed, but ultimately never filmed, projects was a remake of the 1967 Tracy/Hepburn social drama Guess Whos Coming To Dinner? The concept appealed to their idiosyncratic sense of humour; to take this cautious, issue-led story – of a well-off white girl who brings home her black fianc, and the liberal wrist-wringing that ensues – and see what would result if you stripped it of its social context, what would you have left?
Alexa Asjes adaptation of A Patch Of Blue poses similar questions. The play is based on Elizabeth Katas novel of the 1960s, a gritty love story about a blind girl from an impoverished background who falls for a black man, unaware of his race. Like Guess Who, A Patch of Blue was made into a film with Sidney Poitier taking a leading role. But despite doing well at the Oscars, it hasnt had the same cultural impact as, say, In The Heat Of The Night, its just too much a product of its time, it hasnt aged well.
In this new production at the Kings Head, Asjes also plays the central role of Selina, a young woman blinded at the age of five, living in a slum with her prostitute mother and alcoholic grandfather. Selina has led a sheltered life: shes uneducated – threading beads for a meagre wage – and is rarely allowed out of the cramped apartment, so naturally she leaps at the opportunity to spend the odd afternoon in the nearby park. It is on one of these infrequent excursions that she first meets Gordon, a subeditor at the local paper. A considerate and gentle man, he feels sorry for Selina, as she brightly recounts her unhappy past, but he is also clearly attracted to her.
What may once have been an edgy and relevant urban drama, complete with a strong social message about the superficiality of judging someone by the colour of their skin, now just feels contrived, the story heavy-handed and rather corny. And staging it in an English pub theatre just adds another layer of distance. But, despite all these reservations, there are a number of endearing aspects to this production. Asjes doesnt play Selina as a feeble little thing; theres a childlike quality to her, yes, but also a resilience, a toughness. And she has a sense of humour too, which helps dilute the more overly earnest moments of the play.
As Gordon, Eugene Washington also does a solid job and the scenes between the couple are always tender. But, of course, things can never run smoothly between them. This is 1960s America and Selina happily parrots her grandfathers racial slurs, that all black men are monsters, to be feared. The scene in which Gordon is finally driven to confess his identity feels uncomfortable on a number of levels, not least because of the speed in which she forgives him.
There are a number of other moments in the play that dont work as well as they once might have – Selinas mother (played by Elizabeth Elvin), in particularly, rarely rises above the level of screeching stereotype – but again despite its flaws the production manages to engage the audience on its own terms. In her brief role in Alice Kahrmanns Powerless (also directed by Bronwen Carr) Asjes was the source of some of the plays brightest moments and she impresses further here.
A Patch Of Blue is something of a curiosity piece, saved by a strong central performance and a handful of inspired moments.