An interesting story, superbly performed by Joseph Akubeze, with a strong twist, makes this show from Unleash the Llama an easy one to recommend. The script from Eloka Obi and Saul Boyer is exciting, while director Sam Rayner shows a clear understanding of the project and makes the most of its dynamism and ideas.
At the start, we’re in the field of reclaimed history with the show presented as a “little lecture” from 19th-century satirist ABC Merriman-Labor. This is a fascinating life story, from his childhood in Sierra Leone to his time in London, where he trained as a barrister but also wrote the ethnographic account of Empire that gives the play its title.
Akubeze makes Merriman-Labor an engaging figure, taking on lots of roles along the way and aided by some excellent sound design. It’s a tale of colonial injustice, saved from bleak tragedy by humour and romance.
But there’s a lot more to Five Years with the White Man. Akubeze breaks character in a shocking style to tell another story – that of the performer we’re watching, who insists he is not an actor (much fun here), and his love with the writer of the play we were engrossed in…a playwright who has now passed away. It turns out the night is a memorial or “bereavement therapy”.
As the two tales mirror one another, there are a lot of sweet touches. The tone is intimate and moving. Merriman-Labor’s illicit love for a childhood friend gains a power from association. The narrator and his subject are connected across the centuries in a moving fashion. In short, it’s a novel and engaging way of addressing the themes of legacy and memorial.
Until 5 March 2023