We all love theatre that deals with the trials and tribulations of ordinary people; it’s the human element that we go to the theatre for, after all. Egusi Soup, a new play by Janice Okoh running at Soho Theatre, shows that when it comes to families we are indeed all the same, no matter where we’re from.
Egusi Soup is a comedy about culture clashes and cross-generation familial relationships. A daughter returns to England after years living in America working as a barrister, to join the family trip to Nigeria for her father’s memorial service. But home, and the people within it, is not quite the same as she left it. Her sister has married and gone “traditional,” to the point of affecting a Nigerian accent and a smarmy, over zealous pastor has been wrapping her mother around his little finger since the death of her father. And she herself is returning with a secret.
Directed by Paul Bourne and playing at Soho Upstairs, Egusi Soup brings warmth and humour to the boil in this delicious production. Louie Whitemore’s set spreads out along the rectangular space, lining up bedroom, dining room and sitting room in one long homey slice that looks as comforting as a grandma’s house. The scene changes are performed by the cast, with the amusing exception of the pastor who, true to character, never once lifts a finger to help – a lovely little detail.
The recipe for egusi soup reads like my childhood forays into cookery (mixing together anything I could find with beans and topping with banana), but unlike my talentless experimenting, this African classic combines ingredients that seem too different to go together, but make up an age old dish with complementary flavours and a hearty wholesomeness.
Like egusi soup, this family of adults is a house full of people that clash and do not always seem to work well together. The two sisters are polar opposites and both fail to identify with their mother’s African attitudes, having lived in England all their lives. Despite wanting to please her, they cannot see the point of retaining the values of her native village, much to her puzzlement, and this also brings the younger sister into conflict with her Nigerian husband, who is keen to start their own family.
But the distances and differences of time, space and experience cannot compete with family bonds. Families are ever-evolving; new members appear, old members disappear and every generation has new ideas with which to horrify the previous one . The old and the new mix and merge and vie but, as Okoh shows with the Anyia family, if your base is strong, these differences only serve to complement each other, and create something that works and lasts.
Okoh has penned a delightful and laugh out loud comedy. The audience was alive with laughter throughout, mainly through recognition: mothers are all alike. The wonderfully cast, ebullient ensemble fill the place with volume and character, some sweet, some savoury, some bitter, all coming together to create a picture of a family that may fracture but never shatters.
The only downside is the seating. The first three or four rows are on flat ground so I spent the majority of my time either craning my neck, weaving from side to side, or leaning forward trying to see the action between people’s heads or over their shoulders. So aim for the back rows, they’re higher. And get ready to grow some new laughter lines.
Egusi Soup plays at Soho Theatre until 9 June. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.