The first in Talawa Theatre Company’s annual season dedicated to new writers, actors and directors – Talawa Firsts – Normal packs a lot into its 90 minutes. From suicide to drugs, immigration to mental health issues, Theresa Ikoko explores lots of different ideas and strands in her latest work but manipulates them all into a well-constructed piece that, perhaps surprisingly, also brings many comic moments.
Although the piece focuses on Sam, ably and intelligently played by Benjamin Cawley, there is a range of vibrant characters created by this small cast. The double act of Mr and Mrs Adeyemi are wonderfully portrayed by Jude Akuwudike and Antonia Kemi Coker respectively, bringing most of the laughs in their love-hate marriage and hilarious bickering, but also touching on emotions, hopes and disappointments surrounding their emigration from Nigeria to the UK. This is also comically addressed as we meet the second generation, Sam and Ngozi (Faith Alabi), demonstrating again how Ikoko deftly weaves together such a broad range of themes.
As Ngozi, Alabi too shows great versatility as her role spans the light and dark elements of the piece, giving us a full range of feeling even in this staged reading. Her role is beautifully written with lovely phrasing and peaks and troughs of emotions: hers is the character through which Ikoko’s best writing can shine, as she creates a strong voice that drives the play and holds the audience rapt. The concepts may not necessarily be revolutionary, but Ikoko has a way of phrasing them perfectly, exquisitely summing up a particular emotion or experience through dialogue rather than overtly physically dramatic performances. The script may explore many ‘issues’ but, as can sometimes happen, Ikoko has not lost sight of the importance of a truly engrossing and exciting character, which we find in the sometimes frustrating, sometimes sympathetic figure of Ngozi.
As always in staged readings, there are moments that feel a little awkward, but given that this was rehearsed and put together in just three days – an impressive feat – they are surprisingly few and far between. The majority of the cast perform with confidence and a real sense of belief in and engagement with this new script. The minimal production levels in terms of sets and even physicality of performance ensure that the audience pay closer attention to every word that is spoken – and they’re certainly worth a listen, as Ikoko is an impressive and skilful playwright who is certainly worth keeping an eye on.
It’s wonderful that Talawa Firsts presents such a supportive and creative environment for new writing to emerge and develop; I would love to see Normal staged fully at a larger venue and I’m sure its adeptly woven tapestry of strong characters and voices will take it far.
Normal played at Talawa Studios on 11 June. For more information on the Talawa Firsts season, see the Talawa Theatre Company website.