thu 25/07/2024

The Clinic, Almeida Theatre review - race and the status quo | reviews, news & interviews

The Clinic, Almeida Theatre review - race and the status quo

The Clinic, Almeida Theatre review - race and the status quo

Dipo Baruwa-Etti pits a fiery outsider activist against the British-Nigerian middle-class

Special brew: Donna Berlin as Tiwa and Toyin Ayedun-Alase as WunmiImages - Marc Brenner

As Dipa Baruwa-Etti’s latest play, The Clinic, reminds us, the Tory party has a strong showing of Black MPs – Badenoch, Cleverly, Kwarteng. It was finished long before the latest Cabinet appointments, but presciently picked those three names, all now with key ministerial roles. 

But the title isn’t strictly a reference to the regular meeting MPs hold with the public, even though one of the characters, Amina (Mercy Ojelade), is a struggling Labour MP. The term is what one upwardly mobile Nigerian family believe they can offer less fortunate Black people – and, in particular, Wunmi (Toyin Ayedun-Alase), whose husband has just died and who is contemplating suicide after securing a safe home for her baby son. Gloria Obianyo as Ore in 'The Clinic'Assisting her is Ore (Gloria Obianyo), a disillusioned trainee doctor who tried to save Wunmi’s husband and ascribes his death to her institutionally racist hospital, which she believes sent him home too soon. When Ore describes Wunmi’s plight to her mother Tiwa (Donna Berlin), a psychology graduate who volunteers at a women’s centre, Tiwa immediately takes over and insists Wunmi and her son move into the family home for a week. “We’ve got power,” she claims, “Between us, we’re like a clinic.”

Wunmi’s arrival will force this privileged family – whose ranks include a psychotherapist and a police detective – to confront their own Blackness, what it means to them and what they are prepared to do to help their community. Their beliefs start to wobble in the face of her fiery activism. Do you change things from within the system or outside it? How much of her fire will they allow into their lives? And will she risk compromising it by allowing them to help her? 

To underline the fire image, the text throws in many an example of flames and ashes. Almost too many, in fact, as if Baruwa-Etti is afraid we won’t get the point. Monique Touko’s staging also puts the image centre-stage. Smoke rises in the very first scene, as we see Wunmi creating her protest placards and peering down into a smoky void; it seeps, too, into the family’s elegant kitchen, initially from burnt cakes, candles and cigarettes. Ominously, the lights flicker at certain points, as characters start edging towards unspoken truths.

It’s a sign of the distance Tiwa’s psychotherapist husband Segun (Maynard Eziashi) has travelled from his community that he’s written a potentially profitable self-help book about it, The Fire Inside. Segun’s fire isn’t the political kind, as Wunmi discovers when he offers to write about her life. She too has to re-evaluate what she believes, after finding she has let herself be taken in by – gasp – Tories, the party whose policies, she cries, have kept her downtrodden. Worse, Tiwa and Segun’s son Bayo (Simon Manyonda), married to Amina, is a newly promoted detective. He’s “a pig” to Wunmi, the other source of so much of her community’s grief, whereas Bayo see himself as somebody seeking “peace” for them.

This fractious group talk over each other for a little too much of the time. It’s what the playwright intended and makes the point that they have stopped listening to each other properly, but it also means that the dialogue doesn’t always come through clearly enough. This is a shame as Baruwa-Etti is tackling a big and complex subject, a kaleidoscopic look at what it means to be a Black person who wants to change the status quo. But the chunks of text with a strong message – about the inequity of Black experience of policing and the NHS, in particular – stand proud, with a lyrical, rhyming-couplet lilt to them.

This is overall a fine staging in Paul Wills's beautifully designed set – a lavish modern kitchen with obligatory Quooker tap and modish furniture that covers a trapdoor to Wunmi’s personal hell. Over it all hangs a tribal mask, whose eyes gleam in the darkness. 

The cast are superb, especially Obianyo's Ore with her pinsharp comic timing and acrid humour, delivering the often trenchant and punchily funny dialogue with panache, and breaking into bouts of infectious dancing and singing. It's an enjoyable mix, even though it's a complicated piece that needs a lot of digesting. The play's aftertaste is sour, though: the realities of Black British life for most of the community are not fixable with some of Tiwa’s special tea. 

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