Soul at Hackney Empire review: This play about the life of Marvin Gaye fails to hit any high notes

Dougie Gerrard
Nathan Ives-Moiba as Marvin Gaye

Soul | Hackney Empire | ★☆☆☆☆

On April Fools Day, 1984, Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father in the house they shared. Gaye’s was a life ripe for drama, and Roy Williams’ new play explores it, seeking to answer the questions essential to understanding the man. Who was Marvin Gaye? Why did he die?

Williams splits Gaye’s life into two acts. The first is a medley of scenes from his teenage years, ending when he leaves home, and the second is a similar jumble from his tortured final months. The poverty of this structure becomes apparent early on: each mini-scene is too short, there are far too many of them, and they quickly become desperately repetitive. One extended familial argument would surely be more insightful than the same one recapitulated six times over.

Gaye’s father (Leo Wringer, all fire and brimstone) was a churchman, and a vicious bully, who demanded total deference and beat his children – and wife – when they didn’t show it. Williams, predictably, is determined to treat him with an even hand. His violence is understood, even forgiven, couched in Marvin’s own insolence and the rigid patriarchy of the church in which he was raised. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in redeeming Gay Sr, Williams slowly begins to disregard his murdered son. This again is the fault of the structure: Marvin goes directly from being a prodigious teenager (Keenan Munn-Francis, in a promising turn) to a coke-snorting, gun-toting paranoiac (Nathan Ives-Moiba), and any sense of the genius in between falls between the cracks.

The role of fiction in biopics is exploratory, to illuminate bare facts by imagining motives and emotions. But there is little beyond the official history here, and when Williams does permit himself some speculation, it borders on the defamatory. That Marvin Gaye had sex with his mother Alberta (played by Adjoah Andoh) is maintained by few people other than Gaye Sr, but in hints and nudges it finds its way into the play, so Williams can solder together an authentic Greek tragedy. Gaye’s story isn’t just Oedipal: he is Oedipus, albeit with a central detail inverted. Historically this is sordid. Dramatically, it’s a vulgar actualization of a complex and important relationship.

The whole thing is orchestrated not by Gaye’s music, which is curiously absent, but by narration from his sisters (Mimi Ndiweni and Petra Letang). Including their accounts is admirable, but they provide little insight, and the limply written dialogue has the deadening effect of further breaking up the drama. There are small rewards in the game performances (apart from the sisters’ roles, which are utterly thankless), particularly those of Gaye’s parents. But what is finally, fatally absent from the play is a sense of the man himself. Who was Marvin Gaye? Don’t ask Roy Williams.