May 6, 2012 7:33 pm

Belong, Royal Court Upstairs, London

Bola Agbaje’s new play is frank and often blisteringly funny, though it doesn’t quite resolve all the issues it raises

Bola Agbaje has already written with astute understanding on the complexities of identity in Gone Too Far! and Off the Endz. It’s a theme she returns to with her latest play, a sharp, funny and frank comedy fuelled by the pain and bewilderment of not quite belonging anywhere.

Her central character is Kayode, a middle-aged black man, who, when we meet him, is slumped on his sofa in his Croydon flat. He has fought in an election and not done well. A moment of madness on Twitter and months of work went up in smoke. The failure has provoked a personal crisis, so when a Nigerian friend turns up and suggests that his reforming zeal belongs in his native Nigeria, not London, he doesn’t turn a completely deaf ear. He decides to go back for a holiday – but in no time he has been sucked into Nigerian politics and finds his identity under assault here too.

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Agbaje gets to the heart of Kayode’s dilemma with sympathy, but with wit too, making him a grumpy so-and-so much of the time. Lucian Msamati (artistic director of co-producing company Tiata Fahodzi) plays this combination of gravitas and grouchiness beautifully. And throughout, Agbaje creates tremendous characters, who, in Indhu Rubasingham’s exuberant production, take the stage by storm. There’s Kayode’s mother (Pamela Nomvete), a lady of ample size and firm opinions; there’s Chief Olowolaye (Richard Pepple), the corrupt local big-wig, who slips from charm to threats in an instant; and there is Rita (Noma Dumezweni), Kayode’s quietly centred wife.

But though the play nails with painful detail the personal limbo that afflicts Kayode, it struggles under the weight of its own ambitious reach. Kayode’s problem goes deeper than skin-colour in Britain, or table manners in Nigeria. And he can’t get on with the superficial political game in London, or the endemic corruption in Nigeria. So Agbaje brings up both significant questions about identity and deep-seated global and political issues. This is rich territory, but she hasn’t quite got time in 90 minutes to cover the ground or get the plot to really hold. It is hard to credit that Kayode would suddenly run for office in Nigeria or leave his wife in ignorance of his plans. Such plot twists jar, holding back what is otherwise an often blisteringly funny play, with a real feel for the texture of places and people, and much to say about a rapidly changing world.

3 stars

www.royalcourttheatre.com

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