Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini structures her new play to great effect. At first, the scenario is simple, slight even, with four friends celebrating a 16th birthday. As a sweet coming-of-age story with great humour, and fantastic energy from Jade Lewis’ impeccable direction, there are smiles all round.
Ibini tackles common problems that come with writing about young people well. Rey, Elle, Shan and Funmi are smart and very funny, but not so much beyond their years. They have some silly ideas – one source of fun – but their wit is a delight. Ibini’s writing is detailed and specific – addressing age, race and location – but always has an eye on universal experiences that come from first loves and leaving school.
The cast responds to the strong script superbly. Amber Grappy, Shayde Sinclair, Aliyah Odoffin and Bukky Bakray bring an ease to the scenes that make the girls’ ages and friendships convincing. They are a joy to watch. The characters are distinct and complex. While you fear a sharp tongue, with cutting lines delivered perfectly by Bakray, or note Grappy’s cleverly suggested nonchalance, it is clear these girls care deeply about each other. Grappy and Sinclair make their roles charming but both Rey and Elle have a selfish side that makes them believable. The quartet’s touching friendship, mixing banter with sincerity, comes to the fore when things get tough for all of them.
Ibini prepares us for the play to become darker… but I admit I was having so much fun I missed it. After the interval, Elle’s parents’ protectiveness becomes abusive when she is sent to a gay conversation camp. Meanwhile Rey’s affair with an older woman has its own problems. Shan suffers from sickle cell disease and has a near-death experience. And Funmi’s father dies. There is heartbreak in Sleepova – every character has a scene that moves, a defining moment in their maturity, an instant when a young life is being shaped.
By getting to know the girls, the audience is invested in them and cares about the problems they face. Sleepova is gripping as a result. Maybe the four grow up a little too quickly? Or maybe they mature too evenly? But big problems are faced and the development of each is heartwarming. Remarkably, humour is retained throughout – the performers are fantastic comedians – even in the darkest moments. The sense that, through their friendship, all will be well might be an idealistic touch. But Sleepova’s optimism makes it a play to fall in love with.
Until 8 April 2023
Photo by Helen Murray