Tag Archives: Fisayo Akinade

“Slave Play” at the Noël Coward Theatre

The anticipation surrounding the London premiere of Jeremy O Harris’ 2018 play is possibly to its detriment. As one the most Tony award-nominated works of all time, with a policy of “black out” performances that has garnered plenty of press, expectations are high. There is plenty to praise – not least excellent performances – with a script full of ideas and conviction. But there might also be a little disappointment.

slave-play-Aaron- Heffernan-and-Annie-McNamara
Aaron Heffernan and Annie McNamara

Slave Play is long and just a little slow. While Robert O’Hara’s direction is focused, and the acting riveting, the structure is laboured. There are three mixed race couples, each acting out role plays with overtly racist themes. It’s fun to see the fantasies slip (Aaron Heffernan and Annie McNamara do especially well with this), and to see how ideas about eroticism vary and move from awkward to traumatic. Trouble is, we get it in triplicate.

slave-play-Irene Sofia Lucio-Fisayo-Akinade-Chalia-La-Tour-James- Cusati-Moyer
Irene Sofia Lucio, Fisayo, Chalia La Tour and James Cusati-Moyer

It turns out all six are enacting ‘Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy’ and they are being supervised! It’s a great twist. But as we are introduced to a fourth couple, researching how race affects relationships, everyone has an awful lot to say. Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio play these roles broadly and are very funny. But as all the characters fight against anhedonia and alexithymia, the satire is blunt. And it isn’t a surprise when one couple, played brilliantly by Fisayo Akinade and James Cusati-Moyer (who get tears as well as laughs), end up splitting up. Harris allows us to be sceptical with skill, but makes the audience work hard.

Olivia Washington and Kit Harrington

Turns out our focus is the final couple: Kaneisha and her British husband Jim, played by Olivia Washington and Kit Harington. The latter might have a little too much to do, although Harington’s performance is commendable. Jim is the most reluctant to engage in everything going on, taking particular objection to the term “process”, yet he is not quite complex enough to convince. But this final scene is extremely powerful, almost a monologue for Washington, and brilliantly delivered, with Harington nude for a long time. It brings a lot of clarity to the project – with the need to be listened to the important takeaway.

While the “raw and nasty” of this therapy is relative, and the middle-class milieu is well observed, any resolution seems slight. None of the characters is a monster, but they do all seem entitled. And there’s a lot of OCD – the fascinating idea that music triggers the characters leads to the production’s startling sound design and brilliant work from Lindsay Jones. I just wonder if they don’t all come across as a bit barmy? Maybe the potential to dismiss their pain is the play’s challenge?

While valid and important, how interesting somebody else’s therapy is might be a problem, especially if you are being served three doses of it. It seems obvious that Harris wants to make a wider point. That’ll be the reason for a cross-section of couples. What you get from such a lot of material depends on your own circumstances. It will be interesting to see how the play is received in the UK, and by people better qualified than I. But with so much to listen to, Slave Play should do well as a conversation piece… Maybe it really is the process that counts.

Until 21 September 2024


Photos by Helen Murray

“The Crucible” at the National Theatre

Lyndsey Turner’s new production of Arthur Miller’s classic looks and sounds great – no small achievement given its famous setting of seventeenth century Salem run by Puritans. Design supremo Es Devlin uses a lot of rain onstage while Tim Lutkin’s superb lighting also impresses. The music from Caroline Shaw is good – a mix of hymns and background soundscape that is atmospheric but not too spooky. Behind the fancy touches is a solid production of an excellent play.

There’s nothing faddish when it comes to a revival (if that happens to concern you). For Miller, the historic witch hunts are a parallel to McCarthyism in the 1950s. Turner doesn’t stretch to any twist. I thought the crazy children, who say they have seen devil and end up “jangling the keys of the kingdom” might provide a spin. But the audience can make up its own connections – thank you – Miller’s study of hysteria and revenge is powerful enough.

Turner has confidence in the piece. Miller’s preface and an afterword are added, pretty neutral inclusions in my opinion. Respect for the text is referential (after all, it really is brilliant) and despite ending up a long evening, the production is gripping.

The key is not to question how credible events seemed. The accusations the girls make are going to raise eyebrows nowadays – could people really believe them? Likewise, the twisted logic of the theocracy that falls for their tricks: yes, the idea of dancing was scandalous! But the dark motives in the play are serious and Turner aids the piece’s gravitas.

Brendan Cowell and Rachelle Diedericks

The younger cast members do a great job when it comes to a degree of restraint – not easy when you are supposed to be possessed by the devil. The leader of the pack – Abigail -seems far from “wild” and her cohort Mary suitably scared through strong performances from Erin Doherty and Rachelle Diedericks. There is a sense neither girl really knows what they are doing but are carried along by events.

It’s the adults in the show who are the focus. A suitably bland Paris, the community’s minister, becomes increasingly manic in a controlled performance from Nick Fletcher. John Proctor, the play’s flawed hero, takes a back seat: Brendan Cowell must wait until the very end to shine. Instead, it’s his wife, played by the excellent Eileen Walsh whose steely self-righteousness interests more. Walsh suggests the power as well as the costs obtained from the character’s “cold” persona.

Erin Doherty and Fisayo Akinade

Above all, the court itself is the focal point. More than just the villains of the play, Miller is careful to present the arguments of those who come to judge. There are two figures with different journeys here: the Governor Danforth (played expertly by Matthew Marsh) who balances arrogance with conviction. And an excellent Reverend Hale – a great performance from Fisayo Akinade – whose flip between repentance and cynicism when he realises the disaster he is embroiled in, is brilliantly done. It’s these figures of authority that interest most  – and Turner interrogates them superbly.

Until 5 November 2022


Photos by Johan Persson

“The Glow” at the Royal Court Theatre

A supernatural spectacular, Alistair McDowall’s new play travels to the beginning and the end of time. With a central character – The Woman – who is immortal, there’s an ambition to the piece that is almost foolhardy. Thankfully, the writer’s vision is matched by Vicky Featherstone’s bold direction and superb production values.

McDowall sensibly picks the spiritualist Victorian era to start. The Woman is plucked from a cell by a medium called Mrs Lyall. There’s to be an experiment. Mrs Lyall’s wish is to become the first necromancer – I guess it’s good to have ambition – but her victim turns out to be “something other” than she could possibly imagine.

All the way through – and a lot of ground is covered – McDowall’s sense of humour is key. Mrs Lyall’s imperiousness (pity her poor son, impeccably played by Fisayo Akinade) makes her a great role for Rakie Ayola. Back and forth in time we go with a Knight from the Middle Ages in tow (a strong character well played by Tadgh Murphy). Questions of death and suffering frequently arise. That The Glow is funny but still takes itself seriously is impressive. Spooky touches are abandoned, and conspiracy theories debunked – yet the fantastical manages to convince.

The Glow is far from silly sci-fi. The Woman has played major parts in history as well as myth (exploring the relation between the two proves a distraction). But what we see are smaller stories. A retired nurse who is grieving her son (excellent performances again from Ayloa and Akinade) adds some warmth to a generally cool play.

McDowell focuses on the personal for The Woman. Asking how someone feels about being eternal might strike you as simply strange. Yet it serves to look at mortality in an original way. As the character of the nurse remarks, “trying to think about something I couldn’t imagine” is hard: it’s a step McDowall is brave enough to take.

The Glow at the Royal Court inset credit Manuel Harlan

In the difficult role of ‘The Woman’ Ria Zmitrowicz excels, giving a character who mostly wants to hide, suitable charisma. The performance, and the plot, are nicely puzzling. But there’s a sense it’s the production that is the star here. Merle Hensel’s flexible minimalist set adds style as well as menace. The lighting and sound design, from Jessica Hung Han Yun and Nick Powell, aided by Tal Rosner’s video work, is superb. McDowall has plenty of ideas yet the act of bringing them to the stage is what impresses most.

Until 5 March 2022


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Barber Shop Chronicles” from NTLive

With a trio of companies behind it – and, don’t forget, links for donations – the National Theatre, Fuel and Leeds Playhouse gave us something for the weekend with Inua Ellams’ play. This recording, from the London run in 2018, reminds us why this piece – which covers vast ground geographically and brings up plenty for debate – was so warmly received.

Scenes in barber shops in London, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Johannesburg and Harare add up to a lot. And we encounter plenty of colourful characters (Patrice Naiambana’s Paul was my favourite although Hammed Animashuan’s performance was brilliantly scene stealing). Alongside a powerful drama between Emmanuel and Samuel, which make good roles for Fisayo Akinade and Cyril Nri, there are all manners of observation on language, politics, race and culture. It’s all interesting, although maybe not always subtle, but it could easily be overwhelming.

Hammed Animashau in Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner
Hammed Animashau

Ultimately, these chronicles are a collection of small studies and intimate scenes. Director Bijan Sheibani skilfully combines the big picture with close details, and the result belies any shortcomings. Ellams’ touch is light, while segues between scenes, with singing and dancing, are excellent. What could be confusing proves energetic. And the play is funny: jokes are used pointedly and there’s plenty of wit to enjoy.

While the barber shops, as a “place for talking”, serve as an effective device for holding the play together, what really does this job is the theme of fatherhood. The stories take in violence and various ideas of legacy and inheritance, offering plenty of insight. And it’s interesting to note how much bigger than biology the theme of parenthood becomes. Connections between the characters are handled carefully (until the end, in a clumsy moment that really disappoints). Ellams’ play, with Sheibani’s help, ends up more than the sum of its parts. And, given that it has more parts than a barber shop quartet, that’s really saying something.

Available until Wednesday 20 May 2020

To support visit nationaltheatre.org.uk, fueltheatre.com, leedsplayhouse.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner