Melissa Blease reviews Blue Door on at the Ustinov Studio until 9 March

When successful, prominent African-American professor of mathematics Lewis is told by his wife of 25 years that she wants a divorce ostensibly because of his lack of interest in attending the Million Man March (an event that took place in Washington DC in 1995 to highlight the social and economic issues faced by African-American men,) he’s confronted by a turbulent existential crisis.

We never actually meet Lewis’s wife. We do, however, ‘meet’ three generations of his ancestors who take us (and Lewis) on a tour that begins over a hundred years ago and eventually bring us (and Lewis) bang up-to-date with where (and who) Lewis is right now. For Lewis and his family, it’s a very long night. For the onlookers involved in their odyssey, it’s one of the most compelling, potent pieces of theatre to grace the Ustinov stage.

Tanya Barfield’s dynamic, invigorating two-handed drama – one of the Ustinov’s current season of UK premieres from the Americas – was written over a decade ago, references over a century of America’s troubled cultural history… and all-too-sadly remains as fresh and relevant today as it was when it first premiered.

Ray Fearon packs an almighty emotional punch as bewildered, tormented academic Lewis: his charismatic conglomeration of complexity/culpability ultimately begs for nothing but compassion. Gracefully – and remarkably skilfully – skipping blithely between all roles as Lewis’s family through the generations, Fehinti Balogun displays both a witty lightness of touch and hugely affecting depth according to each cameo.

Meanwhile, a stage covered with dusty bark and surrounded by a cleverly simple, elegantly designed backdrop loosely depicting densely-grown forest tree trunks, most of the time illuminated only by a single bare lightbulb, further add to the overall sense of anxiety that’s seriously interfering with Lewis’s life without distracting us from the unmitigated substance at the heart of this compact one-act drama.

On a superficial level, we could liken the Blue Door premise to a contemporary version of A Christmas Carol, what with visitations by ghosts from times long gone by coming back to show the main character where he’s at today, etc. But Blue Door is about as far from superficial as it gets: it’s a riveting, painfully poignant analysis of identity, culture, race and the conflicts that arise as a result of the beliefs, values, principals and attitudes that are passed down from generation to generation.

While it’s an undisputed fact that we can never erase our DNA, it also remains all too clear today that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Blue Door, meanwhile, is guaranteed to linger long in the consciousness of all who see it, leaving a multi-faceted lesson that we could all learn something from in its wake.

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Image by Simon Annand