Writer: Janice Okoh
Director: Paul Bourne
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Egusi Soup is a thick, rich, spicy and nourishing soup from western Africa, especially popular in Nigeria. Its preparation is an important skill and passed down within the family. And it is a well-chosen metaphor for the situation that the Anyia family find themselves in.
It is a year since the sudden death of Mr Anyia, the family’s patriarch. The family are preparing to return to Nigeria to visit his grave and celebrate his one year anniversary. So we meet his wife (Lorna Gayle), who cannot quite let go. His chair has remained empty and his possessions untouched in a box room. She cannot believe that it was a cancer that took him, but if not that, what? She has been supported by the pastor, Mr Emmanuel (Richard Pepple) who has visited every day. But is he as holy as he’d like us to believe? He certainly has something of the witch doctor about him as he advises his flock on how to pray, selling indulgences and blessings to the more gullible. Living in the same house is the daughter, Grace (Anna-Maria Nabirye) and her husband Dele (Seun Shote). Grace has always played second fiddle to her prodigal sister, has always yearned for her parents’ approval, even to the extent of marrying a man who resembles her father, convincing herself she loves him. Dele is a traditional Nigerian man, struggling to come to terms with more modern life and a wife with a mind of her own. And there is Anne, the hugely successful barrister in New York, who could not spare the time from her career in banking law (Acquisition Finance) (“I was up for partner!”) to attend her father’s funeral nor her sister’s wedding. That she remains single is felt by her mother as a slap in the face and she and Mr Emmanuel spend considerable time plotting to match her with eligible Nigerian men.
A notable feature of Egusi Soup is the humour within the script and visually on stage. Before the interval, especially, gentle fun is poked at various characters and there are laugh out loud moments aplenty. For example, Dele’s implacable faith in the pastor’s ability to help them conceive is notably misplaced and leads to a memorable slapstick routine that closes the first half.
But the second half starts rather more darkly as tensions simmer only just below the surface. The stories that we tell ourselves and others are stripped away and we see the characters as they truly are. An especially powerful scene follows when Anne tries to explain why she was absent so long and the impact her career choices have had on her personal life.
These characters, as sketched by Janice Okoh and made flesh through the direction of Peter Bourne are entirely believable, fully rounded and three dimensional. We may not agree with their viewpoints, but we can appreciate their reasoning and understand their reactions. The internal logic is perfect and we start to really care about them, with the possible exception of the shyster pastor: Pepple’s portrayal of the oleaginous Emmanuel is both deeply funny but also chilling in the extent of his influence over family members. His attempt to convince Mrs Anyia that he has had a vision of angels in the throes of ecstasy in order to influence her (reminiscent of Tevye’s dream in Fiddler on the Roof) is rather unpleasant and unsettling. Gayle plays Mrs Anyia perfectly: her need to be in charge and maintain appearances (she is strongly reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket in that regard); her need to maintain tradition; her almost childlike bafflement over the loss of her husband; and, yes, her packing skills, a hilarious running joke. This is a towering central performance. The interplay between the sisters is beautifully judged, each envying the other, each telling herself the story that she is the better off, each not quite believing it. Shote’s Dele, a man with big ideas but lacking the wherewithal to achieve them, a man who sees himself as the centre of his wife’s life but who has to accept that other paths may be appropriate is well played too.
The set, designed by Nicky Bunch, is multi layered and, in places, claustrophobic, maintaining the theme of packing and the baggage we insist on carrying around. It allows the flow of the piece to be maintained. If there is a flaw, it is that some of the accents are so strong and dialogue so quick in places that, to a western ear, some lines are lost and it takes a short while to become attuned.
Nevertheless, this piece confidently treads the line between almost farcical humour and depths of emotion leaving us more than satisfied with what we are served with.
Photo: Andrew Wilkinson | Runs until 22nd March and on tour