Tag Archives: Monique Touko

“School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

Jocelyn Bioh’s play soars above the average high school drama because of its brilliant comedy and its Ghanaian setting. The plot is deceptively simple and playfully predictable, as well as remarkably effective and hugely entertaining. For this UK première, the play is, also, brilliantly performed.

With its subtitle nodding at a Hollywood film (American culture looms large over these children’s lives), the schoolgirls of the title have the kind of cliques you find the world over. Bioh has written fantastic characters led by Paulina (Tara Tijani), who is the school Queen Bee and nasty with it. But from the start, none of her followers are that meek, which leads to a lot of humour. Ama may be the first to answer back, but Gifty and Mercy have minds of their own, and Nana rebels quickly. It is the entrance of new girl, Ericka, that sets up the drama, and more great jokes follow.

The performances are accomplished. Led by Tijani, Heather Agyepong, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, Bola Akeju and Jadesola Odunjo (a cracking stage debut) convince as a clique full of tension and discontent. Anna Shaffer is also superb as the new arrival, carefully revealing her character’s life story.

Every line is made the most of, but that’s only half the fun – reactions to the insults or slights are brilliant. Pay attention and keep your eyes peeled. Director Monique Touko has engendered detailed performances that are a delight.

Deborah Alli and Alison A Addo

The teens are funny in their naivety (the 1986 setting adds here) but competing in an international beauty contest becomes a big deal for Paulina. She isn’t the only one taking it seriously. A recruiter, a former pupil at the school and Miss Ghana 1966 herself, turns up. Alongside the school’s admirable headmistress, these are two strong roles for Deborah Alli and Alison A Addo, who anchor the show and provide the potential for debate – the contest can change lives, but at what cost?

The highlight of the show is a trial pageant. Given the 1980s fashion, costume designer Kinnetia Isidore is the real winner here but, after a singing section (that reduced me to tears), we get a twist that emphasises the racism and colourism these characters face.

Paulina is revealed as “crazy and desperate” – the lies we’ve been laughing at are truly pathetic. And, sadly, Paulina knows it. When she tells the fairer-skinned Ericka: “the world has already decided you are better than me”, it is heart breaking. The end of the show is bravely downbeat and the energy Touko has kept so electric plummets, but it serves to illustrate how perfectly controlled the whole production has been – top marks all around.

Until 15 July 2023


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“We Need New Names” at Brixton House

The first new names in Mufaro Makubika’s adaptation of NoViolet Bulawayo’s acclaimed novel come with children playing – a group of friends take on different identities for their games. The strong theatrical conceit, performed with conviction, elevates this coming-of-age story set in Zimbabwe. And the play gets better and better.

The cast perform as youths with a girl called Darling and her friends singing, laughing, and bickering. Director Monique Touko keeps the energy high and the mood light. The action is swift with lots of movement. But these games make an audience think too as the kids come across a suicide, chase after aid, or witness violence.

Darling has a sense of hope, depicted brilliantly by Lukwesa Mwamba, that pervades the playground scenes. The prospect of a move to America, for “pizza and Rhianna”, make her different. Mwamba brings her character’s charm, petulance, and courage to the stage and is ably accompanied by five other cast members.

The play packs more punch when we see Darling in Detroit. It may be depressingly predictable that her new life is hard. But Bulawayo brings emotional insight that Makubika makes strong drama from. More music, with original compositions from Tendai Humphrey Sitima, aids immeasurably.

A pincer movement punishes Darling who has trouble fitting in with new friends while becoming estranged from life back home. Relationships with an aunt and a grandfather figure are highlights, enhancing the focus on Darling’s experiences as a woman, bringing strong performances from Princess Khumalo and Kalungi Ssebandeke.

There is pressure for Darling to change her name to something “more” American. The dilemma is heart-wrenching, especially as we watch the predicament dawn on the innocent girl. It is Mwamba’s meticulous performance that grounds the show and makes the production special. Embodying a description of the character as “sunshine”, Mwamba makes the show’s strongest moments.

Until 6 May 2023 at Brixton House and then touring until 10 June 2023

Photo by Robert Day