Bush Theatre London – until 8 April 2023
In the week which saw the Bush Theatre pick up two out of a possible five nominations in the Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre award category in this year’s Oliviers, the excellent West London venue has further cause for celebration with the opening of this sassy delight. As refreshing and spicy as an ice cold ginger beer on a sunny day, and as warm and lovely as a hug from a treasured friend, Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini’s irresistible sugar rush of a play already looks like a strong contender for feelgood show of 2023. It’s a study of female friendships among four Black East Londoners in their late teens turning into early adulthood. It’s suffused with authenticity, affection, and irrepressible humour… and the dialogue is terrific.
Every performance during its run is designated a relaxed one, and Jade Lewis’ rambunctiously enjoyable production is such a party that, for much of it, watching in total silence wouldn’t even feel appropriate. That said, at least on press night, the spell woven by script, staging and above all the quartet of fabulous performers, is such that it means that when Ibini’s script turns serious and demands more thoughtful attention, the entire audience is utterly riveted, engrossed into silence. You find yourself caring very deeply about these four young women pretty much from the get-go.
Sleepova opens with Shan (Aliyah Odoffin) preparing to host an overnight party to celebrate her sixteenth birthday, with her best friends: there’s devoutly Christian Elle (Shayde Sinclair), mouthy gay mixed race Rey (Amber Grappy), constantly financially manipulating her hapless offstage stepmum, and super-smart, endlessly horny Funmi (BAFTA Rising Star Bukky Bakray, proving she’s every bit as wonderful on stage as she is on screen). Odoffin’s Shan is an open-faced gem: witty but innately nice, with a vulnerability borne of having the shadow of inherited Sickle Cell Disease looming heavy over her young life.
One of the many marvellous things about Ibini’s writing is that it acknowledges the seriousness of this, and several later situations, but never devolves into sentimentality: these young women are too vital and brilliant for that, joyfully, noisily, looking to find and take their places in the world. Nary a morsel of dialogue or a funny line (of which there are so so many) rings false, and the love, support and occasional sharpness between them convinces entirely. If there is a small issue, it’s that, particularly in the first scene, some of the dialogue is delivered so naturally, thrown away almost, that it’s not always possible to hear.
Structurally, the piece is episodic as the characters talk about their parents, about boys, about their long term prospects, and how their cultures and heritages (variously, Nigerian, Jamaican, Grenadian…) impact on their modern London lives. They bicker, support each other, share confidences – the overall effect is of eaves-dropping on some unusually entertaining conversations – and, in a particularly fun sequence, we get to see them going to their final school prom (“we’re moving closer to becoming our real selves, fulfilling our potential. We get to set the agenda now”) and really partying it up: it’s a gorgeous button on a tumultuously good first half.
The second half is more serious and genuinely very touching, but proves marginally less successful and satisfying as big themes are batted about -bereavement, a sudden health emergency, the reaction to homosexuality in a religious family- then resolved a little too quickly in order to get the play to its finish. The biggest casualty of all this is the deeply disturbing subject of gay conversion therapy, a topic that is well documented in the USA but much less talked about here. Ibini has created a potent, heartrending scene between Grappy’s compellingly feisty Rey and Sinclair’s steadfast but conflicted Elle, but then all but abandons this compelling, troubling strand of the story: it’s a little frustrating. On a side note, these two performers are making astonishingly fine professional stage debuts here.
The play concludes with an uplifting scene which sees the four women putting together and burying a “time capsule” of beloved objects, while speechifying about their future hopes and dreams. It may be a bit of a trope but it’s leavened with the humour with which Ibini excels, and carries authentic emotional weight. Ultimately, this feels like a very “young” play, and that is not a criticism. It’s full of heart, hope and wonder, and it’s a privilege to watch a quartet of upcoming acting stars at close quarters (though the gloriously droll Ms Bakray is already well on her way to stardom). Truly life-enhancing stuff, and a female driven riposte to the universally acclaimed, West End-bound For Black Boys…, it deserves a similar level of success. One to love.