Writer: Bola Agbaje
Director: Franko Figueiredo
Reviewer: Lettie Mckie
This year Deptford-based performing arts venue The Albany celebrates its 30th anniversary. An organisation which prides itself on a long established connection to the local community its programme of music, theatre and spoken word reflects the diversity of cultures within south east London.
Their latest production (A co-production with StoneCrabs Theatre) The Burial by Bola Agbaje is an example of work that celebrates and showcases new talent. Agbaje’s first play won an Olivier Award for outstanding achievement after a sell-out run at the Royal Court in 2008 and she was also nominated for an Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. In the few short years since then Agjabe’s work has been produced at an impressive array of venues all over London.
It is an intriguing, multi-layered performance grappling with complex issues surrounding religion, familial ties, and conflicting cultural preconceptions. The production is set in the round (Richard Andrzejewski) in Ike (Tunji Lucas) and Funmi’s (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) flat. Their lives are turned upside down on the death of Fumni’s estranged father and the arrival of his two wives Aunty Iyabo (Karlina Grace) and Ngozi (Pamela Okoroafor). The play explores how Fumni deals with this situation and comes to terms with the loss of a Father who had rejected her because of her marriage to Ike.
Told through a mixture of song, dream sequences and straight dialogue the story of Fumni’s past life and current struggles is slowly revealed. The presence of spectral ancestral spirits in her dreams and the yellow circle of sand around the stage are physical reminders that her connection to Nigeria (and therefore her father) is never far away despite her British flat, clothes and lifestyle. The arrival of her father’s wives on his death throws her into turmoil as she has to confront their conflicting expectations for his burial, and her own repressed grief at his passing away without their ever being reconciled. The Burial, therefore, is both about his physical burial and her sustained burial of her own feelings over the many years since she has seen her father.
The play sensitively portrays Fumni’s struggle but it lacks the consistency of form needed to making it truly compelling. The production switches too quickly between comedy, drama and physical theatre without settling long enough to allow a sustained reaction from the audience. The result is that although the themes of the play are intriguing, the emotion is not conveyed as powerfully as it would otherwise be. Some moments are powerful, such as when Fumni reads a letter from her father, but others fall flat because they seem out of place such as the comedic arguments between the wives. Although the actors playing these two women illicit hearty belly laughs from the audience, they also play too closely to racial and gender stereotypes which mean their scenes are dissatisfying, their characters don’t develop as individuals.
Highlights of this production are found in the variety of performance forms used and the thought-provoking writing which explores complex themes, but it is ultimately disappointing because it remains unfocused theatrically, leaving the audience unsure of what it has achieved.