The Maiden Speech Theatre Festival returned this month for its third season hosting a range of work from the next generation of emerging theatre makers. In this double bill review, I take a look at ‘I…’ by Asa Haynes and ‘The Kola Nut Does Not Speak English’ by Tania Nwachukwu. Both are personal, self-penned solo shows performed in a direct address to the audience. Though the set up for each may sound similar, the performances are wildly different.
In ‘I…’ the premise is simple. Guy meets another guy and falls hard. After a brisk whirlwind romance, guy is ghosted and is reminded of his loneliness.
Although the premise may be simple, this short contained show is golden. Haynes’ quirks and dry sense of humour sends the audience howling with laughter, either while he’s judging young black school boys for having ashy elbows or when he describes listening to the calming sounds of Cardi B to send him to sleep.
The opening of the piece is more like a physical comedy sketch. George, barely dressed, emerges from the depths of a big dirty pile of clothes and springs to life. He goes through the motions of his morning routine, including a *full-out* performance in the shower. In the show, we see day to day life through George’s lens, from his anxiety around catching the train in the morning on time, to the confrontations he has with racism in public.
Although George may have a bold and confident exterior, as the play progresses and he finds himself unlucky in love, the layers of the onion are peeled away and we see him become increasingly introspective and question his own self-worth.
The dirty pile of clothes acts as an unexpected scene partner. George will often rummage through to find his socks, or look for a change of clothes. When his anxiety heightens, he frantically throws the clothes around the space. In one of the more moving scenes, while George attempts to bring order to his thoughts and process his feelings, he simultaneously seeks to order the dirty pile of clothes one item at a time.
‘I…’ is an intimate, relatable and promising piece which could easily be developed into a full-length play.
Though ‘The Kola Nut Does not Speak English’ is also a solo show, the full force of what Nwachukwu delivers covers so much more than just one person. As a first generation British-Nigerian woman of Igbo descent, Nwachukwu carries the stories of her people and more on her shoulders. She does this as she transforms into an Igbo storyteller in a number of scenes, and also as she plays audio recordings of her grandma and father.
The piece is lively and compassionate; Nwachukwu gives the audience a schooling in the importance of keeping languages alive and being considerate to how your language is preserved.
A range of themes are touched on in this show which many individuals with immigrant backgrounds will also ask themselves. Do you speak proudly about where you’re from when you’ve moved somewhere new? If you and your elders don’t confidently speak the same language will they fully ever know you?
As enriched as the play feels, the story-telling does feel a bit uneven at times. We jump between stories about keeping a Kola Tree alive, to brief moments of audience engagement, to moments where Nwachukwu talks directly to the audience. In one scene, there’s a build up around the grave differences between life in London and in Watford but this doesn’t lead anywhere in particular.
The detriment of this, is that it does a disservice to the finale. The ending is intended to be a rousing declaration that Nwachukwu’s tongue will not be silenced. But as there hasn’t been much development leading to this point, it doesn’t land as powerfully as it potentially could have done.
It said that our parents are our greatest critic and so in many ways their views supersede the thoughts contained here and I can gladly report that Nwachukwu’s father appeared to be beaming with pride as he sat in the corner of the audience.
The Maiden Speech Theatre Festival provides a much needed platform to exciting new pieces of work and if these two shows are anything to go by, great things should be in store for next year.
Photo Credit: Lexi Clare Photography