There’s no doubt the heart of This Little Relic, an audio production for BBC Radio 3, performed live at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, is in the right place. It tells the tale of a play within a play, based on Ira Aldridge’s 1846 melodrama The Black Doctor, a story of love transcending racial tensions.
Ira Aldridge was the first professional Black actor to appear on the British stage and was a successful actor manager and playwright in his day. He was also the first Black actor to play Othello, and in 1828 he took over management of the Coventry Theatre. He received staunch support from the people of Coventry at the time, who supported his anti-slavery stance.
Rich material, then, for a city that prides itself on its inclusivity. Its City of Culture 2021 status gives it the perfect platform to advocate a long and proud tradition of multi-culturalism. The BBC is part of this event, recording a number of programmes in the city under the heading Contains Strong Language.
The story focuses on the tensions with a group of young people who are part of a community theatre project led by Mr Sims (Delroy Brown), a passionate youth leader and Black actor manager himself. The play is to be performed in an abandoned pub in a rundown part of the city, the Old Relic. His lead actress, Alex (Aimee Powell) has trouble at home. She is of mixed race and adopted by a white family. A key part of the play involves her search for her birth parents and her cultural identity through her relationships.
The villain of the piece is Jen (Emma Cunniffe), an ambitious property developer intent on building another high-rise ‘luxury’ block of student flats. Anyone who knows Coventry will know that these have been springing up all over the city and are now a defining feature of its inner-city landscape. Though she is herself from Coventry her ambitions pay little respect to the needs of local people, who outside the new developments feel themselves to be ignored.
The play is thus rich in current local and national issues, which for me were made at the expense of dramatic tension and a good plot. It is no surprise that the story turns out well, the villains undergo a change of heart, good intentions are turned into positive action, and everyone realises the cultural and personal riches they’ve had all along. “It takes a community to put on a play,” the chorus sings. Does it?
This Little Relic is not without its charms. A major part of the performance is the a cappella sound track written and performed live by Coventry’s Black Youth Theatre. Their singing was superb. And the acting was great throughout. They may have been reading from scripts into microphones, but they were absolutely in character. It was also fun to watch the sound effects being created live on stage.
BBC Radio Three is a home for really great audio drama, often of a challenging and experimental nature. This play slips down a bit too easily, wrapped up warm in its own good intentions. The figure of Ira Aldridge is worthy of a richer treatment than this, though the play’s message of positivity will resonate with many.