Bush Theatre (venue)
17 July 2021 (released)
15 July 2021
I'm not entirely sure if it's possible for a solo performer to 'steal the show', given there's no one else on stage to steal it from, but nonetheless it feels like an apt description of Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo’s mercurial performance in Lava, Benedict Lombe's debut play at the Bush Theatre.
Bursting onto stage in dizzying dance, she remains a transfixing presence throughout the play's 80 minutes; the audience hanging on her every word, gesture and eye-brow raise as she leads us on a story that spans multiple decades and continents.
Our protagonist - known only as Her - has found herself in something of an administrative pickle. She wants to renew her British passport, but the name on it doesn't match with that of her South African one - something which the authorities cannot compute. In trying to untangle this Kafkaesque knot, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and remembrance that deals with racism, the history and legacy of colonialism, and the different shades of identity that exist within the black diaspora experience.
These are topics that demand our attention regardless of how they're packaged, but where Lombe's script really sings is when she manages to weave its undeniable truths into the fabric of its characters’ lives - all of whom are wrought with vivid clarity by the shape-shifting Adékoluẹjo.
An early scene with her mother sorting kidney beans - the sound of them pinging into separate bowls enough to teleport us to her kitchen - also contains a brief history of Western brutalisation of their homeland, the Congo. Later on we see a much younger Her relive memories of teachers being surprised at the quality of her schoolwork when she first arrived in the UK, given she's, well, you know… ‘different’.
Despite the seriousness of its message, the play is chock full of moments of laughter, joy and celebration. Lombe has a gift for bathos, knowing exactly when it's time to puncture the tension with some light relief.
As well as guiding Adékoluẹjo expertly through this most challenging of performances, director Anthony Simpson-Pike deserves credit for some bold lighting moments - made effective by their scarcity - and an impressive, free-wheeling use of the space.
The narrative perhaps gets a little lost towards the end. Rather than the two blossoming together, it feels like Lombe sacrifices the story arc she so expertly sets up in the first act in order to ensure the play’s vital message really hits home, which it certainly does. Some may find this a little too direct. But given what’s at stake, can we really afford to take a subtler approach?