First published in The Times, Thursday August 24 2017
Inua Ellams first came to the attention of fringe audiences with his award-winning one-man show The 14th Tale, in which the poet, playwright and performer told stories of his childhood in Nigeria, London and Dublin. Passages of Ellams’s first stage success find their way into this vivid, multi-layered piece of storytelling. The autobiographical building blocks are the same, but here the performer allows his righteous anger – as well as his considerable charm and generosity of spirit – free rein.
The opening moments set the deceptively informal tone. Ellams arrives onstage, dressed in a traditional Nigerian kaftan that belonged to his father, dancing and inviting us to clap along. He pokes fun at the late-night slot (“most of you should be in bed”) and the lo-fi nature of the staging (the only props to hand are a suitcase and a small device for playing music).
The poetry itself is beautifully observed, pictorial in its detail, inventive yet always precise. Ellams’s divulges his experience of hailing from a “family of troublemakers” from Northern Nigeria, forced into exile when the mix of Christian and Muslim faiths in the family began to prove unacceptable to fundamentalists in the local community. The writer draws on specific episodes to make wider points about difference, acceptance and the seemingly unending search for a home.
Pic: Oliver Holms
Some of the early, boyhood romps at his private school in Nigeria contrast heartbreakingly with his discovery of racism and bullying when he moved to London. His long, lyrical reminiscence about a formative moment when he and his fellow Dublin basketball players bonded after losing a match in which supporters of the opposing side racially abused Ellams is especially poignant.
All of this is punctuated with fast-paced, eloquent anecdotes in which the performer conducts around his family’s turbulent, absurd and heart-breaking journey through the immigration system. Ellams is warm and engaging, funny enough to be a stand-up, frank without hectoring, occasionally emotional. Towards the end he lets rip with a calm yet passionate call to arms against the prejudice and misinformation that has proved so detrimental to race relations in Britain, the irrational practices of the Home Office and the counter-productive nature of the UK government’s immigration policy.
The show is a touch too long, and there is a question about why such an accessible piece should be on in so late at night, but the performer deserves real credit for drawing attention to the injustices faced by some of the most embattled and impoverished people on the planet with such charm and zest.