The Host @ The Yard Theatre

Produced as part of the National Youth Theatre’s East End Season, The Host is a new play written by Nessah Muthy, tackling the refugee crisis, poverty and race. With its talented young cast, inspired writing, and dynamic direction from Zoe Lafferty, the show is a great example of how difficult subjects can be tackled with humour and emotion.

Yasmin’s (Rebekah Murrell) sisters are struggling to make ends meet – Natalie (Jesse Bateson) cant repay her loan, Hayley (Taylor Keegan) has been forced to take time off work, and Pearl (Isabella Verrico) has taken up three jobs just to pay the rent. For them the answer is simple: Yasmin needs to move back in with them. Just scraping by with two jobs of her own, she doesn’t think that’s a good idea, and when refugee Rabea (Zakaria Douglas-Zerouali) appears on the estate without a place to stay, things get complicated. Yasmin agrees to host him, but how can she agree to help a complete stranger when her own family is in despair?

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Photo: Helen Maybanks

The urgency of the play is felt from the onset as the opening scene is a heated argument between sisters Yasmin and Natalie. The actors fire back and forth and each other, and it’s hard not to be immediately drawn in. Muthy’s writing is dynamic and fast-paced, but it never feels rushed. The ensemble is excellent on stage and they do complete justice to the text. In particular, it’s a pleasure to watch Murrell in action. She bursts on and off stage like a ball of energy and has glorious comic timing, yet it’s deeply moving to watch her in some of the stiller scenes.

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Photo: Helen Maybanks

Lafferty’s direction leaves the performers exposed, and even when they’re not in a scene, they still appear in the view of the audience – observing the action, sometimes scrutinising the characters’ choices. We’re forced as an audience to always be aware of the other characters even if they’re not actively a part of the action, which emphasises the play’s themes of poverty and displacement. Although there is no conclusion that draws everything to a close, the ending is still satisfying. You’re expected to ponder and consider what has been presented, and hopefully continue the discussion elsewhere.

Muthy looks at race within one family and draws parallels between Rabea and Yasmin that help us consider ourselves in relation to others, those who are strangers and those in our families, and what it even means to be English. In an ocean of post-Brexit plays talking about race and immigration, The Host stands out with its exploration of otherness in a clever and nuanced way, and with a genuinely talented cast.

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Aisha @ Hen and Chickens Theatre

Child marriage is still prevalent in the UK, putting thousands of young people at risk every year, so it is not surprising to see the subject explored on the stage. In his debut Aisha, writer and director AJ fuses spoken word influenced text with the difficult discussion of this practice to portray affects it can have on victims. The text is brutal and evocative, but at times the title character’s voice is drowned out, making the story hard to follow.

At 14, Aisha was forced to marry a man three times her age, fulfilling her parents’ wishes and their Muslim-Nigerian traditions. Now she’s 17, tortured daily by her “husband”, locked in her home, and made to cater to his every wish. She’s stopped caring about her life and is more concerned about her unborn baby’s, who gives her a glimmer of hope and the strength she needs to survive.

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The style in which AJ pens Aisha’s speech is poignant. His use of poetic language, a reference to the character’s childhood dream of becoming a writer, is Shakespeare-esque, setting her apart from the other characters. She quotes from her mini Oxford dictionary, rhythmically, like taking part in a spelling bee contest, another nod to her juvenile state. The opening is harrowing and will cause discomfort for anyone watching, as will some of the scenes involving Aisha’s physical torture. Performed by Laura Adebisi as Aisha – her stage debut – the opening speech gives a horrifyingly descriptive account of her rape. You will struggle to take your eyes off Adebisi’s strong performance. It’s apparent from the onset that this is about Aisha, and she will be telling her own story without others diluting her account.

As the play goes on, we are introduced to other characters: her stern and traditional mother (Sabrina Richmond); her husband and torturer (Ayo Oyelakin); his friend Mr White (Lloyd Morris); a blabbering doctor (Alexander Lincoln) who also functions as a some comedic relief. Yet as each character appears, the timeline of the play becomes confusing, altering the piece from being Aisha’s own linear story, to one about those around her. This removes her voice from the discussion, and consequently it is hard to continue to concentrate on what is happening.

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The most frustrating moment comes in the form of a dialogue between Mr White and Aisha’s husband during a poker game. Mr White goes on a racist rant complaining about Muslims and praising Brexit, to which Aisha’s husband shrugs and agrees. AJ weaves religion and cultural traditions into the piece through Aisha’s parents’s background, and uses it as a way for their justification of her marriage, but even so, this short scene feels like an outlier within the play. The writer does not expand on the theme of religion, but only refers to it on occasion. AJ tries to draw parallels between religions by including the support worker’s background (a small role and composed performance by Olivia Valler-Feltham), who was groomed and raped by a priest when she was a child, but this comes across as a throwaway comment. It seems as though this is supposed to be an unexpected twist in the story, but its execution is underwhelming and flat. More could have been done to discuss abuses of power, whether in the hands of religion or tradition, which feels like it’s missing from this play, instead of leaving them in the background without expanding.

Aisha begins with an undeniably moving and strong performance by Adebisi, and stirring poetry by AJ. But over the course of an hour and a half, the point of the story is lost as the playwright desperately tries to create a profound comment on child abuse, instead of sharing the story of the incredible young survivor.

Aisha is at the Hen and Chicken’s Theatre until 24th June.

Sublime @ Tristan Bates Theatre

Focussing on the relationship between a brother and sister and their shady pasts as grifters, Sublime is a play about heists, shared history, and the strong bond between siblings. Writer Sarah Thomas starts off with an intriguing concept that explores the complicated partnership between the two main characters, but by the end the story creates more questions than answers, consequently producing an unsatisfying ending.

Sophie (Adele Oni) bursts back into her brother Sam’s (Michael Fatogun) life after disappearing for 2 years. Sam seems to be living a “normal” life – he has a steady job and a long-term girlfriend (Clara, played by Suzy Gill). But when Sophie says she needs his help to cover some debts she owes, Sam can’t say no, and is soon back to his old ways. As they carry out burglary jobs together, old feelings begin to appear, and the siblings are forced to confront questionable emotions.

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Although performed by a cast of four, the play feels like a two-hander, especially in the first half as Sam and Sophie have very intimate scenes. Thomas’ intricate and evocative dialogue is engaging, and has a captivating rhythm that’s perfectly performed by Fatogun and Oni. Even though Fatogun is the stronger of the two performers, their immense chemistry on stage is undeniable, and an absolute delight to watch. Gill is a great Clara, whose middle-class antics provides laughs, and a very a stark character contrast to the siblings’ backgrounds. Sam and Sophie’s complicated relationship leaves so much intrigue and question that you’re desperate for the second half to begin to find more about them and their past.

Yet the second half lets the strong beginning down. When trying to conclude the play it feels as though Thomas struggles to fit all the information about the brilliant characters into a short space of time. Too much of the story is left unfinished for it to be a cohesive ending. Declan Cooke – who doubles as Clara’s dad and the owner of the bar Sublime, which Sam and Sophie plan to rob – is used as a devise to help tie loose ends, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. Thomas is a terrific writer, and the first half of the play shows this, yet the second part feels rushed and haphazard, which isn’t helped by some very gimmicky set-pieces – think Pulp Fiction briefcase-like elements – which look and feel awkward.

Thomas has created a group of interesting characters. A pair of siblings brought up by a man they call uncle who taught them to steal, and a father-daughter duo who don’t know much about each other. It’s a sad and fun story that looks at relationships and love. It explores how people cope with hard times and how some bonds can’t be broken, but also how some kinds of love can be destroying and fundamentally wrong. It’s just unfortunate that Sublime is let down by its second half. Throughout, Sam and Sophie’s characters allude to a big final heist, so naturally one is expected to appear at some point, but it just never comes, leaving you desperately yearning for one. A lack of an elaborate heist wouldn’t be so disappointing if the story provided satisfying a conclusion, but sadly it doesn’t.

Sublime is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 8th April.

Acorn @ The Courtyard Theatre

In this hour long dark comedy, Maud Dromgoole displaces the mythical stories of Persephone and Eurydice into the present, using these characters to explore the roles of women in modern society. Even though it starts off slowly, the striking images that appear throughout Acorn allows the play to pick up momentum, making it an enjoyable piece.

The play follows Eurydice as she prepares for her wedding day, excited to spend the rest of her life with her new husband. At the same time, Persephone, a Doctor, goes from patient to patient, trying to improve her bedside manner, which she is told she lacks. It seems as though these two women are worlds apart, but slowly their stories begin to intertwine, and when a snake-bite brings the two together, death becomes their shared destiny.

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The performance is hard to follow at first, even though Deli Segal as Persephone does her best in delivering the beginning monologue. But once the actors get into their stride, Dromgoole’s writing falls into place. Segal portrays the comedic elements of her character with strength, delivering her sarcasm brilliantly. Equally Lucy Pickles performs Eurydice’s humour with style, and it’s a joy to watch the two interact. Tatty Hennessy’s direction is fluid, which makes even the hard to understand scenes visually pleasing to watch. Additionally Tom Pearson’s projections combined with Matthew Strachan’s original score adds a sinister layer to the play, emphasising its ancient Greek influences.

In Greek mythology Persephone is the queen of the underworld, and the fact that she is presented as a doctor in the play is an unusual approach to the character, but a welcome one that challenges the concept of death. Dromgoole successfully manages to adapt the two women into a setting that makes them relatable, creating a very satsifying piece. Although it can be easy to lose track at times, the energy and imagery created by the performers makes Acorn worth your time.

Acorn is at The Courtyard Theatre until 29th October.

Girls @ Soho Theatre

Directed by Elayce Ismail, Theresa Ikoko’s new play Girls makes its London debut at Soho Theatre. This story of endurance and friendship follows three girls as they struggle to survive after being kidnapped. By mixing humour with the pain and conflict of desperation, Ikoko has created a striking play that is gripping from beginning to end.

Haleema (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), Tisana (Abiola Ogunbiyi) and Ruhab (Yvette Boakye) are taken from their families one day by a group of men who invade their village. Haleema is frustrated, yet remains strong, while Tisana, the youngest of the three, copes by constantly playing make-believe. Ruhab on the other hand becomes fond of one of the captors. As time goes on, life becomes increasingly dangerous for them, so Haleema comes up with a plan to escape. But will the other girls also risk their lives for freedom?

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Ikoko’s writing is powerful and the subjects explored resonate with you well after the end of the play. The poetic language and pop culture references are weaved into the text effortlessly, making the characters endearing and easily relatable, even if the situation they are in is alien. There is never a dull moment as the performers’ energy elevates into an inevitable tragedy. Uwajeh is fantastic as Haleema, perfectly capturing the character’s quick wit and strength. She is very entertaining and instantly likeable. Equally, Ogunbiyi and Boakye give great performances as Tisana and Ruhab respectively, and the chemistry between the three performers is insanely charming. They genuinely feel like the best of friends. The emotion echoed by Ikoko’s writing is brought to life with a hint of comedy, adding light to the dark subject.

The text is particularly powerful with its sentiment. We are never aware of the setting of the play, just that it is in Africa, but the resemblance of this story to the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram is no accident. Girls uses the fictional characters to give these children names and faces, highlighting their struggles, and forcing us to acknowledge who they are: just girls who like to talk about boys, sex, hair and Beyoncé. The emotional ending is unfortunately too realistic which is the most upsetting part of this piece, and the subtlety of Ikoko’s writing makes it all the more heart-breaking. With her masterful writing, you’re guaranteed laughs as well as some though-provoking themes that will stay with you once you have left the auditorium.

Girls is at Soho Theatre until 29th October.

Girls Night Out @ theSpace@Jury’s Inn, Edinburgh Fringe

A twenty-something young woman is preparing for a Saturday night out with the girls. However as she tries to get ready, she is constantly interrupted by her friends and members of her family. Eme Essien’s hour of brilliant comedy is full of hilariously relatable things women face when getting ready for nights out. By combining sound recordings with her performance, Essien brings to life different characters superbly, like Darnell – the guy you give your number to but instantly regret when he actually calls. Girls Night Out is a cleverly written and well performed one-woman show that demonstrates the realities that women face in their day-to-day lives.

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The sound recordings are masterfully weaved into the performance which allows Essien to skillfully speak to each character in an organic way. In particular her aunt from Nigeria is the one who stands out the most. Their conversation over Skype is an amusingly accurate sequence full of perfectly timed comedic miscommunication. While the show is funny and energetic, it also includes some home truths that affect woman. Essien looks at how independence is construed by different people and how aspirations are sometimes altered because of circumstance. She successfully introduces these ideas into the show in a way that makes them feel natural and familiar, which is instantly engaging. The show authentically presents the battles women are faced with and the expectations society has of them. Essien’s attitude is inspiring, and her hilarious performance makes Girls Night Out an impressive piece that is well worth a watch.

Girls Night Out is at theSpace@Jury’s Inn until 27th August. 

Just Let the Wind Untie My Perfumed Hair… or Who Is Tahirih? @ Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh Fringe

 Written and performed by Delia Olam, Just Let the Wind Untie My Perfumed Hair (or Who is Tahirih) details the story of the 19th Century Persian poet Tahirih who defied societal expectations and took the firsts step in challenging inequality. Performed with eloquence and beautiful poetry, Olam’s one-woman show powerfully showcases the life of this poetess.

In 19th Century Iran, women are forced to be obedient to the men around them, and are expected to be good wives and mothers. But Tahirih has had enough of this powerlessness. She writes poetry, defying the men around her, fighting for true equality. When she takes off her veil to reveal her face, which is an illegal act, her execution is demanded. Throughout the show we hear from Tahirih’s father, friend, servant and executioner, who paint a rebellious picture of her, until finally she is martyred.

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Olam’s writing is tender and her characterisation is effective. Tahiri’s father is the most touching character, with his conflicting views drawing mixed emotions from the audience. While he is proud of his daughter’s thirst for knowledge, he can’t help but interpret her intelligence as rebellion. His thoughts are also shared by the other members of the community, creating a heartbreaking story. The most evocative elements of the piece are the musical points in-between each scene. Tahirih’s poetry is fused with the sounds of a cello and Appalachian dulcimer, performed beautifully by Olam. The play is haunting and Tahirih’s suffrage is powerful. Her words “you can kill me as soon as you like but you cannot stop the emancipation  of women” will stay with you even after you have left.

Just Let the Wind Untie My Perfumed Hair (or Who is Tahirih) is at Assembly George Square Studios until 29th August.