Tag Archives: Lynette Linton

“House of Ife” at the Bush Theatre

Given its subject matter, Beru Tessema’s debut play is remarkably enjoyable. An estranged family struggling with the death of the titular character through drug addiction sounds grim. But Tessema’s confident comedy skills add well-placed lighter touches. And an exciting ear for dialogue gives this straightforward domestic drama its own originality.

This is a family with secrets, that’s haunted by grief, but the strong bonds between its members are the focus. Establishing a trio of bickering siblings is well done from the start – and great fun. Taking the lead is an adorable younger brother, Yosi, whose performance by Michael Workeye is the standout for the whole show.

Michael Workeye in House of Ife at the Bush Theatre
Michael Workeye

The deceased Ife’s sisters show us different sides of grief, and the performances by Yohanna Ephrem and Karla-Simone Spence make a good contrast. The parents bring yet more insight through their Ethiopian heritage and the father doing “God’s work” (while starting a new family) back in Addis Ababa. There are strong performances again, this time from Jude Akuwudike and Sarah Priddy.

With so much ground to cover – the family history and big issues – it might not be surprising that Tessema addresses topics thinly. Questions of belonging, of culture and of religion from five different perspectives are explored – but not that deeply. Ife’s addiction isn’t examined enough, leading to this pivotal offstage figure feeling sketchy.

Instead the show’s strengths come from comic observations and the tension between generations. Director Lynette Linton’s close work, with the steady flow of conversations between the parents, the children, and the whole family, are always engrossing. The pacing is excellent, with loud arguments and quiet reflection nicely balanced. An explosive final scene provides a worthy payoff for all the care and attention taken.

Until 11 June 2022

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Sweat” at the Gielgud Theatre

After rave reviews and a sell-out run at the Donmar Warehouse, the transfer of Lynn Nottage’s play is especially welcome. A political play about blue-collar America and trade unionism isn’t your average West End fare. Brilliant performances and excellent direction count for many stars awarded by the critics. But, above all, it’s the marvellous work from an exceptional writer that makes this one of the best plays I’ve seen in an age. Oh, and it won a Pulitzer Prize.

At the heart of Sweat’s success are a series of characters that we come to know so intimately. As a trio of work friends whose jobs in a steel factory and threatened and then lost, Jessie, Cynthia and Tracey make for wonderful studies that Leanne Best, Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton all excel in. Their history established with speed, when Cynthia moves from shop floor to office door we get a moving moral dilemma brimming with conflict.

The action takes place in the women’s local bar, and the manager’s bar-room philosophy and news commentary, skilfully delivered by Stuart McQuarrie, add to the sense of a whole community, maybe the whole US. The complex picture is created with such a natural touch it seems effortless on Nottage’s part – and appreciated by director Lynette Linton – but what technique!

Let’s not be naïve. Focus on the women in the factory and ethnic minorities working in the bar could feel tokenistic. Here, it’s what it is – real life. And the characters are all the more remarkable when we come to consider how functional each role is. Each represents a response to or facet of economic meltdown. NAFTA, the rise of nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric, even self-medication and the opioid epidemic are all issues raised. And, handled with such humanity, Nottage makes them personal.

If Sweat still sounds dry, exceptional plotting makes the delivery anything but. There’s a thrilling mystery here surrounding two of the women’s sons, Jason and Chris, and a crime that occurs. Beginning with their release from prison we’re left guessing what happened, even who the victim was. With yet more tremendous performances, from Patrick Gibson and Osy Ikhile, we see a once close friendship and the disturbed characters both men have become. During the second act, Linton ratchets up the tension: who does what to whom is unexpected, the cruelty of events ripping a community further apart.

When racism rears its head, it is especially poignant as we see a friendship destroyed. Yet understanding how violence has escalated shows the play has important insights. As well as examining the systemic in society, Nottage takes into account an element of chance. Think of the characters, to various degrees, as unlucky and it’s sure to change any moral judgements you might make. Sweat ends as a challenging piece, preventing us from condemning any of its protagonists too quickly. It creates an uneasy sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’ time after time in a way only the very best theatre can.

Until 20 July 2019

www.sweattheplay.com