Writer: Inua Ellams
Reviewer: Daljinder Johal
It’s hard to tell whether Inua Ellams uses his voice or his hands the most evocatively to weave images of his “idyllic” childhood in Nigeria, displacement between Dublin and London, immigration struggles and profound familial love.
Born to a Muslim father and Christian mother in a part of Nigeria that is now considered to be Boko Haram’s territory, Ellams sits on stage and uses poetry and anecdotes to explore universal experiences of romance, childhood and family. But most significantly, he shares the journey of his family to London, Dublin and then London again, in an effort to find a home that would not reject them.
While Ellams told part of his story in his Edinburgh Fringe First Award-winning play, The 14th Tale, now he dances joyfully onto the stage (and with an audience member!) in traditional dress to immediately show why he was so well-received. After all, like he says himself, with so many acts at Edinburgh Fringe, it’s not an insignificant achievement to win this award – even if he hilariously didn’t realise it at the time.
With a friendly presence and his discarding of his colourful attire to reveal a casual top emblazoned with “Never forget to say thank you”, Ellams quickly underlines the show’s emphasis on the multifaceted nature of identity and he is easily likeable. It also seems to serve the show’s important aim of putting a face to the often dehumanised immigrant. It seems that they’re just like us.
Except Ellams knows how to use a variety of wonderful metaphors: like the described oceans and seas, he explains just how far he has travelled from a middle-class Nigerian family, to be informed what racism is as a child and then experience it and a myriad of frustrating problems in today’s immigration system. His hands appear to guide his only instrument confidently like a conductor, to tell these stories and they dance as if demonstrating their innate dexterity that he mentions in the beginning of this autobiographical tale.
Although he’s skilful enough to avoid his movements seeming overly-rehearsed here, this is very clearly a performance with his equally smooth transitions between accents for impressions and the changing lighting. While a golden glow and DJ Sid Mercutio’s beats mimic the warmth of his more bubbly and unrestrained anecdotes, his poems are marked out by a hush and a more reflective blue, welcoming us into his inner consciousness. However, even if the sudden silencing of the music at poignant moments proves effective, the volume does become overpowering at times. Perhaps Ellams should have more confidence in his discussions without the punchy alliteration and bombastic sounds of his poetry, to not detract from his grappling with issues of identity and the immigrant experience. In fact, the performance could benefit from integrating Ellam’s discussion of real-life statistics for those lost in the murky depths of the Home Office bureaucracy. While he makes pertinent points here, it feels disjointed from the rest of his story.
Nevertheless, this is an excellent show that doesn’t fail to make the audience laugh and smile with Ellams at the feelings and experiences that transcend borders, even while we sympathise with the struggles of his family and confront the human face of those suffering in our society today.
Runs until 14 March 2017 | Image: Contributed