Bush Theatre London – until 8 April 2023
This lively and vital new play, Sleepova, by Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini, focuses on four Black teens as they approach their 16th birthdays. Friends forever, they chatter, plan, and clash in the privacy of bedroom ‘sleepovas’ as adulthood beckons and dynamics change. Teddies are hidden and posters removed as they start to think of sex and life beyond school.
Deeply religious Elle (a strong professional debut from Shayde Sinclair) fights her feelings against a backdrop of unseen parents forcing her away from ‘unAfrican’ thoughts.
Shan (Aliyah Odoffin), whose birthday marks the first get-together, is struggling with a potentially life-limiting illness, which makes her search for love more poignant and perhaps sacrificial.
Then there’s fiery, unapologetically queer Rey (a well-rounded turn from Amber Grappy), who seems destined to tread her own path. Making up the quartet is funny, horny Funmi (Bukky Bakray), who lusts after Shan’s unseen brother, Solomon.
As you might expect, there are many ups and downs in this two-hour play, which is set (design by Cara Evans) in a carpeted basin to suggest teenage spaces, a prom night, a hospital ward, and more.
The girls talk, laugh, fight, and bond under Jade Lewis’ direction and Elliot Griggs’ lighting (which has head torches, candles, blackouts, and fireworks). You expect conflict and get it. You expect banter, and enjoy it.
Sleepova never feels forced no matter what is going on. It tackles bereavement, estrangement, conversion therapy, pragmatism, sickness, and attraction in the same breath as choosing a prom outfit or picking up GCSE results.
This is a celebration of the young Black woman, which can not help but draw you in and leave you smiling. In a relaxed environment within the theatre space, audiences are encouraged to react in any way they choose.
It’s a freedom that enhances the play, with various ‘oohs’, ‘aahs’, ‘no ways’, and ‘whats’ being interjected as we go. A clever way to invest those watching into the action.
Sleepova works on its immediacy, on a believable chemistry between the quartet, and on milestone moments anyone will recognise (first lip gloss, first crush).
It balances the pull of parental pressure and tradition with the hopes and dreams of sweet sixteen. I really enjoyed this new play and feel that even in a familiar space of friendship quartets, it has much to offer.
Sleepova continues until 8 Apr at the Bush Theatre – tickets here.
Image credit: Helen Murray