EGUSI SOUP, Whatsonstage
There's a real drama as well as fully three-dimensional characters in the play by Janice Okoh produced for a short East Anglian tour by Menagerie - which premiered it during this summer's Hotbed Festival - and Eastern Angles. Paul Bourne directs the revised text as a fully staged but script-in-hand production. More work needs to be done, including some judicious cutting, but the essence of the play is already apparent.
At its heart are three women, all with African roots but with a British background. The eldest is the widowed Mrs Anyia, preparing to return to Nigeria a year after her husband's death for the traditional memorial ceremonies. One daughter Grace has subsided from a career as an actress into work at the human resources department of a company as well as an unsatisfactory marriage to a preacher's nephew. He is full of resentment - at the lack of recognition for his MBA, at his minimal status in the UK compared to in his home village, at his inability to father an heir.
Grace's older sister Anne has apparently a high-flying legal career which has taken her to New York. She comes home to London in preparation for the trip to Nigeria with gleaming luggage, trendy presents for everyone and a soul overflowing with bitterness. Her first and most obvious target is her brother-in-law's uncle,a priest with a mission (or two) that have very little that's truly godly about them.
The exchanges between the women, either in separate conversations or (finally) when they reach a compromise which has some degree of comfort in it, ring very true and speak straight to an audience of any background. The revelations which emerge grow naturally from both the plot and the characters and the ending has great poignancy. The men (Sydney Smith as Dele and John Adewole as Mr Emmanuel) don't come over as realistically; they are types rather than people.
In keeping with this slight in-balance, the best performances come from the three women. From her first entrance, high-heeled and business-suited, Karlina Grace offers us both the brittle shell that is the outward Anne and the desperate unhappiness within it. Quieter in her troubles but no less intense is Gracy Goldman as her sister, an acceptor of what life throws at her until she reaches her own point of no return.
Taiwo Ajai-Lycett is the matriarch, a woman who can blend acceptance of what cannot be changed, not to mention possessing a shrewd sense of proper priorities, with an apparent country simplicity which annoys her daughters just as much as she enjoys displaying it. It's a bravura performance which anchors the play. And the soup of the title? That really is revealed to have a very special flavour.
The action takes place over four days and nine scenes, and this diffusion needs to be addressed in what is still very much a work in progress. It is, however, one which will repay the effort. Okoh can write. What is more, she can write plays