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THEATRE Review
2024

RED
SOHO PLACE
PITCH
★★★★★

Written by Tyrell Williams
 
Dir. Daneil Bailey
Playing until 4th May 2024
all images © Helen Murray

MARCH 22, 2023
Red Pitch. Francis Lovehall (Omz) , Kedar Williams-Stirling (Bilal), Emeka Sesay (Joey). C

As the play is about to begin at the Yard Theatre, one becomes overwhelmed with this sense of home coming aided by the effectiveness of Milla Clarke’s set, beautifully accentuated by Xana’s sound design and Christopher Nairne’s lighting. The subtle sound of waves crashing against the imagined shoreline lulls you into a calm, perhaps even contemplative, headspace as you take your seat.*

 

Samuel, Fode Simbo, is a proud tour guide at Cape Cost Castle in the ‘Year of Return, 2019’. His job is to explain the complex history and significance of the castle to tourists, never diverting from the tightly written script he’s given. Working alongside Samuel is Orange, Bola Akeju, a young, fun, and ambitious woman, not satisfied with her job in the gift shop and, unlike Samuel, isn’t a big fan of the tourists. Each day during the ‘Year of Return', Samuel takes ten tour groups throughout the grounds and ruins of a castle that was once the seat of power for the Colonial British rulers in Ghana. As Samuel’s day ends, Orange informs him that there is one last tour for a British couple, Trev, Stefan Asante-Boateng, and Letty, Tori Allen-Martin, who asked for him by name. And against his own protestations, Samuel agrees to take the additional tour and in doing so, he comes closer to understanding his own past and unearthing ghosts he perhaps isn’t ready to confront.

 

Sometimes a piece of theatre comes about that genuinely knocks the wind out of you. From the moment the audience meets Samuel they’re drawn into his special, strange, and mysterious day. Breaking the fourth wall so early in a play could have been risky, but it was so important as it laid the foundation for the entire play. Playwright Rhianna Ilube and director Anthony Simpson-Pike needed to inform their audience that they are not just observers; they are going to take part, even if only intermittently, in Samuel’s story.

 

There is a raw, heartbreaking realism and a truth to the way Simbo brings Samuel to life that makes it impossible for you to take your eyes off him. You believe every word he utters, every movement and deflection, and every pause he takes to stall the rapid beating of Samuel’s heart. Samuel is a man lost, unsure of his place, and haunted by both his own ghosts and the ghosts that loiter in the shadows within the castle’s dungeons. Over time, these ghosts have become intertwined, leaving Samuel with a sense of foreboding. Simbo effortlessly weaves between these conflicting worlds Samuel is facing—are the shifting shadows that seem to follow him, real or imagined. These moments beautifully offer a great creative marriage between Nairne’s lighting and Gino Ricardo Green’s video design that uplifts the production, offering something very haunting.

 

The greatest strength within the Ilbue's text is the subtle references to Samuel’s personal life and why the castle seems to be so special to him. For him, though he’s not likely to admit it, the most important relationship comes from his co-worker Orange, which creates a forced but respectful brother-sister dynamic. It’s within all of their scenes that Ilube masterfully crafts the only real human connection that Samuel has. Orange, always joking about and forever looking at ways to break free from the castle, takes the gentle ribbing of Samuel seriously. Orange offers him an honesty and frankness that he really needs. The closer we see this familial bond grow, the more we see how deep Samuel's sense of loneliness, fear, and heartache really is. The audience is never privy to the reasons or the circumstances that led Samuel's mother to do what she did, but Simbo allows us to feel his pain and abandonment. The powerful way with which Simbo imbues his character with such solemnity and forges a bond between Samuel and the audience is almost indescribable.

Bola Akeju (Orange) in 'Samuel Takes a Break' at The Yard Theatre. Photo credit - Marc Bre

What does touring places like Cape Cost Castle really mean to those who make the pilgrimage and try to walk through the footsteps of their ancestors? Ilube tries to answer this through a series of tourists, played breathtakingly by Allen-Martin and Asante-Boateng. It is these characters--the British blowhards, the American influencers, the British couple, etc.--who offer an interesting snapshot of the personalities of the people taking such trips. Unlike other ‘dark tourist’ places, visiting somewhere like Cape Cost Castle, Auschwitz, or Nelson Mandela’s prison cell hold cultural, historical, and personal significance. There is no rule to say that just because someone is an influencer, they can’t go to these places. One could make the argument that it will be through that influencer's posts that many more people will understand more about a historic event. And though a gift shop might sound like an odd thing to have at a place like this, worth noting that the Anne Frank Museum has one.

 

Though Ilube, Allen-Martin, and Asante-Boateng have a lot of fun with these additional characters that equally allow for some great comedic moments, it is Allen-Martin’s Jamaican-British grandmother that breaks your heart. It’s a scene so significant and wondrous that you could hear your heart beating. The simplicity of Allen-Martin's manifestation into this old woman is matched by such honest words from Ilube that you’re left in no doubt that ‘dark tourism’ can help unify our own sense of identity. In this scene, there's only Allen-Martin and Simbo, who stand to the right of Allen-Martin, on stage as she allows this Jamaican-British lady her moment to bring her soul home.

 

Ilube follows this up with Trev and Letty, a couple who seem to hide their own inner conflicts about the pilgrimage. The audience feels the conflict between Trev and Letty from the start, and Samuel’s reservations don’t seem to help things much. The more the tour progresses, the more Trev can’t hold back his distaste, and a conversation about their physical difference comes to a head. It’s an unexpected conversation, but one that opens up a myriad of thoughts and questions about the legacy of slavery, the impact of the Slave Trade, and identity.

 

This is the “Year of Return," and for all the tourists, no matter where they have come from, making this pilgrimage is something their ancestors never thought was possible. Standing in the cells, surrounded by the muted sounds of screams, chains clanging, and fears, they can feel this ancient pain. And though these tours are for the benefit of the returned I couldn’t help but think of those who remained, how do they reconcile with this history and the legacy. For people like Samuel and Orange they have had their history and trauma co-opted and commodified for a new tourist, a new industry, a new world that doesn’t like the word ‘slave’. 

"Unlike other dark tourist places, visiting somewhere like Cape Cost Castle, Auschwitz, or Nelson Mandelas prison cell hold cultural, historical, and personal significance."

Samuel Takes a Break in Male Dungeon No. 5 After a Long but Generally Successful Day of Tours is the type of clear, honest, raw, emotional theatre that is rare. Not since Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem have I seen a play capture the very essence of its subject and themes in the way Ilube has done here. And much like Jerusalem, the success of this production lies in the unique creative partnership between writer Ilube and director Simpson-Pike. Together, with their exceptional team and cast, have crafted a play that is equally historic and heartfeld as it is farcical and insightful.

 

*Now, a few hours later, I am still thinking of those waves and of the sound they made smashing against the rocks. I can’t help but think about the captured humans, shackled, scared, afraid, and being torn away from their land and their loved ones. I am thinking of them being separated on the lower deck of the ship, one of over 12 million, to be transplanted to distant lands. I find myself with them, hearts beating, faces wet with tears, the only calming sound being the waves. It’s a sound I feel will live on forever in their souls as they begin an unimaginable journey.

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