A breathless whirl of Jazz Age joy and Blues at the National Theatre

Sule Rimi as Sam and Samira Wiley as Angel in Blues for an Alabama Sky - Marc Brenner
Sule Rimi as Sam and Samira Wiley as Angel in Blues for an Alabama Sky - Marc Brenner

In the scorching summer of 1930, jazz drifts through the grimy windows of a Harlem apartment block. There, the tenants dream of better things, while blotting out their economic woes. This is where and when Pearl Cleage set her 1995 play Blues for an Alabama Sky, which has been brought back to seamy, glorious life in this revelatory revival at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre.

Topping a faultless five-strong cast in her London stage debut is Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale, Orange is the New Black), who lights things up with a slinky and impetuous performance as Angel Allen, a good-time girl in crisis. She shares her apartment with Guy (Hamilton’s supremely nimble Giles Terera), who manages to scoop her sodden frame home on the night they’ve both just been sacked from the Cotton Club – where Angel was a back-up dancer, Guy a costumier. The Italian gangster whom Angel has been seeing has just got married, too.

None of this stops the ever-fizzing Guy from cracking out the French champagne – onwards and upwards. Terera is magnificently funny in the part – just wait for his reaction to a new frock given to Angel by Leland, a courtly Southern widower (Osy Ikhile) who sets about seeking her hand.

Meanwhile, Cleage’s characters name-drop buzzy celebrities from the Harlem Renaissance – Guy posts dresses to Paris for his idol Josephine Baker, and the poet Langston Hughes is their friend on the local scene. Several of the latter’s poems (“Hold fast to dreams…”) have been set here to music by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, which the cast sing as they look to the horizon. It’s one of the most expressive touches of Lynette Linton’s evocatively designed production, with Frankie Bradshaw’s cascading set using a revolve for emphasis and poking fire escapes up to the rafters.

Flattered by Leland’s attentions, Angel faces a poignant dilemma – to settle down as that kind of church wife, or keep up all her small-time striving and flailing. Next door lives Delia (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), a demure sweetheart who’s involved with opening controversial birth-control clinics, and resists the advances of the suave doctor Sam (Sule Rimi) out of self-preservation.

Perhaps Leland’s horror at widespread abortion practices and shock at discovering Guy’s homosexuality, landing jointly in one scene, make a heavier thud than they might. But this is a remarkably buoyant piece, which retains a boisterous flair even when Miller-esque tragedy rounds the corner. To get whoops of you-go-girl glee from a press-night audience minutes before gasps of inevitable horror is everything this vital rediscovery deserves.

Until November 5. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk