Tag Archives: Kibong Tanji

“Recognition” at Talawa Studios, Fairfield Halls

The Black British 19th-century composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a huge success in his day but has since been neglected. Playwright Amanda Wilkin uses his fascinating history, driven by the desire to give the man the recognition of her play’s title, to great effect.

First, the history, because I’ll admit that’s what attracted me. The story is super – the fact that Coleridge-Taylor lived in Croydon is a boon to the borough during its Year of Culture. Recognition could have more detail. But if it feels some opportunities are lost (especially around Coleridge-Taylor’s family), what we do see is well done. The storytelling is aided by a talented cast headed by a superb performance from Paul Adeyefa as the composer.

Kibong Tajni

Now for a bigger project, Wilkin has a clever move that is admirably, imminently, theatrical. Alongside the history runs the story of a young music student called Song played by Kibong Tanji. It is through her research that we learn about Coleridge-Taylor. But Song’s story is just as important – it is through the inspiration he offers her that recognition will come. And it is with this vital, living, concern that Wilkin hopes to inspire the audience.

Showing the stories in parallel leads to praise for director and choreographer Rachael Nanyonjo, credited as co-creator of the show. The achievement isn’t just in keeping the stories clear, but in having them complement each other. Both lives are weaved together by the cast taking on a clever mix of roles, but also by movement and the use of music, including a new composition by Cassie Kinoshi.

The sense of support Song obtains from the past is palpable. All of this is reflected in a strong performance from Tanji, who shows the tension provided by Song’s “inner critic” as well as a powerful sense of conviction that brings events in the play right up to date. Tanji also provides a sense of excitement about music that is essential and might otherwise have been lacking throughout much of the piece. The interactions between Song and Coleridge-Taylor make for a stirring finale and the strongest moment theatrically.

Until 24 June 2023


Photos by Gifty Dzenyo

“The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs” at the Soho Theatre

Iman Qureshi’s queer musical comedy deserves to be a big hit. It’s funny and the songs, performed by the seven-strong titular choir, sound great. Plus, it’s Queer in proud, heart-warming fashion – addressing the concerns of a community with sensitivity and intelligence.

Director Hannah Hauer-King and the cast have a firm grasp on one-liners and wry observations guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. But the play’s strength comes with its diverse group characters – who are lovely to get to know.

The choir is led by Connie, an Owl (Older Wiser Lesbian!), full of eccentric appeal that enables Shuna Snow to make the character a starring role. There are great gags for Dina from Qatar, discovering her sexuality despite her grim husband, and more laughs for the frisky Ellie. In these roles Lara Sawalha and Fanta Barrie excel. There’s burgeoning romance for Fi and Brig (further strong performances from Kiruna Stamell and Mariah Louca). And the choir has new arrivals in a long-standing couple, Ana and Lori, whose squabbles are great fun for Claudia Jolly and Kibong Tanji to perform.

These women are all terrific – a joy to watch and listen to. Inclusion is the name of the game as the group bond and are selected to perform at Pride. Hurrah! And if the play had ended here, I’d have been, simply, very happy.

Up to the interval, The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs has a humour and sweetness that reminded me of the current Netflix hit, Heartstopper. The latter is a teen drama, of course, and Qureshi is writing for adults (with an adult wit). But there’s a similar sense of ‘Queer Joy’, a concern for Representation with a capital R and confident, admirable characters not just defined by their sexuality.

Qureshi doesn’t just want to make us laugh. The second half of her play is much more serious. Hauer-King (one half of Damsel Productions) handles this shift expertly, especially with scenes of potential violence, and the cast members further impress with their aptitude for real drama. That investment in the characters pays off as relationships end, therapy is sought out and the adorable Dina’s fate becomes a cause for concern. 

An upset at the Pride event raises the issue of including transwomen in the choir, allowing Louca and Stamell a brilliant scene that deftly lays out this contentious issue. We are shown the importance of language and how essential safe spaces – like the choir itself – are. Qureshi provides so much debate there’s a danger of falling into some of the clichés she has earlier lampooned. But her points are important and well made. Thankfully, a love for the characters created and a palpable sense of community provides an uplifting end.

Until 11 June 2022


Photo by Helen Murray

“The Sun, The Moon, And The Stars” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Strong ideas and intriguing verse make the quality of Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s new play easy to spot. Superb direction from Nadia Fall and a stunning performance from Kibong Tanji take the production close to five-star territory.

Tanji plays Femi, a young woman whose twin brother has been murdered in a racist attack. Baruwa-Etti writes viscerally about grief: it takes over the body, becoming something elemental, so big it is related to the celestial. This is powerful writing, but it’s the physicality Tanji brings to the role that is mind blowing. I’d put money on her having trained as a dancer.

The clever move is to relate how grief warps Femi’s mind. A desire for justice becomes consuming and violent fantasies isolate Femi from her friends. Achieving a balance between sympathy for the character and being afraid of her – as well as for her – is skilfully achieved.

a stage spectre to rival the best

Femi’s mental ill-health provides a further character for the play – the ghost of her brother. Here, all involved excel. Tanji depicts her character’s reactions to the ghost and slips effortlessly into embodying him as well. Fall injects fantastic tension, with the help of lighting and sound designers Oliver Fenwick and Tingying Dong respectively. And Baruwa-Etti has created a stage spectre to rival the best.

That Femi is haunted is a smart way to link the twins’ experience of racism, then Femi’s encounter with the criminal justice system, with questions of history. But her brother Sean’s ghost is individual enough to make a powerful drama about characters who are more than symbols for societal woes.  

A benevolent, often calming presence, Sean provides support that leads to tender moments recalling the siblings’ childhood. He has instructions… and they aren’t always what his sister wants to hear. The suggestion that Sean also manipulates adds to his fascination. That her ghostly companion leads to the suggestion of Femi’s salvation is a conclusion that, although arriving abruptly, is inspiring.

Until 20 June 2021


Photo by The Other Richard