Reviewed by Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Monday, June 11, 2012.
The themes in Bola Agbaje’s absorbing new play, which has just finished a successful run at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre in London, are very similar to those she has already dramatised in early hits at the same venue: Gone Too Far and Off the Endz each portrayed characters looking to escape from a comfort zone, to extricate themselves from sticky situations - due to birth or circumstance.
But this time the award-winning writer goes much deeper - setting much of her action in the volatile world of Nigeria and that country’s combustible politics – and reveals a more mature and insightful depth to her craft. Around this satirical story Agbaje creates the hilarious tale of ambitious London based politician Kayode Adejemi [played by the ever dependable Lucian Msamati] fleeing personal crisis, media furore and a humiliating election defeat.
Reuniting with his mother after returning ‘home’ to Nigeria, Kayode gets an induction into the altogether different culture and politics of Africa’s most populous state. In many ways, he is a fish out of water; in others, he soon becomes intoxicated with the all-too familiar ambition of power and politics.
Along the way, he negotiates tangled relationships with his wife, the expressive and convincing Noma Dumezweni; a madcap sister Fola played by the versatile Jocelyn Jee Esien; dynamic; force of nature mother [persuasive Pamela Nomvete ]; naïve yet determined ex-Area Boy and newly adopted younger brother Kunle [Ashley Zhanhazha]; with Richard Pepple playing the radiating sinister character that is Chief Oluwalaye.
The complications sparked by Kayode’s divided loyalty between his Nigerian heritage and his acquired English/British mores and standards provide Agbaje and her excellent ensemble cast enough material for drama and suspense, to hilarious and sometimes frightening effect.
It’s a conflict symbolised perfectly in an amazing scene where Kayode attempts to make a speech to a crowd of market traders. Quickly realising his Queens English wouldn’t work in Nigeria, he reverts to the Yoruba language of his audience. His transformation into opportunist politician - which is possibly his essential trait - reveals that the apparent tension between his heritage and upbringing is a mere sideshow. As a character study it is revealing of Kayode’s opportunism, but as an exploration of culture, identity and belonging, Agbaje’s thesis is not pressed home fully.
However, that’s a minor gripe because this short and sharp piece, orchestrated by soon-to-be Tricycle Theatre Artistic Director Indu Rubasingham, is deftly organised; with designer Ben Stones simple but effective set facilitating smooth transitions between quick fire scenes over an entertaining 60 plus minutes.
Soon overcoming an almost pedestrian start which seemed like a great cast wasted, the night is sparked to life by Kayode’s comic Michael Jackson style moonwalking and the entrance of Chief Oluwalaye in a masterly performance by Richard Pepple.
There’s a lot to think about here and Agbaje uses her growing skills to entertaining effectively.
Belong continues at Peckham Rye’s Bussey Building as part of The Royal Court Theatre’s innovative Local Season until the end of June.
Co-produced by Tiata Fahodzi and Royal Court Theatre
Written by Bola Agbaje
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
CLF Art Café at the Bussey Building
133 Rye Lane
London SE15 4ST
until 23 June 2012
Box office: 0207 565 5000