An awkward combination of sitcom and drama and scattered with lines in Yoruba, Pandora's Box is a daunting piece to review. Personally speaking, I felt lost for most of it, and dragged back and forth between the different styles, although judging by the standing ovation I may have been the only one.
Toyin and her mother have returned to Nigeria, ostensibly on holiday, but also to enrol Toyin's wayward son Timi at a strict academy - but no one has told him, and Toyin is resisting leaving her son behind. Ronke, her sister, was left behind by her mother (also called Ronke) when she went to England, and she doesn't want to replicate their strained relationship with her own son - although it turns out Timi may need saving from himself.
Again, I'm going to preface a review with a caveat - I couldn't really make head or tail of this, but the entire audience around me was roaring with laughter and loving every minute; I may not exactly be in this piece's demographic. The scattered Yoruba seemed to often get laughs, as did references to Nigerian politics, socio-economics, and so on, but it went completely over my head. In the end, that's my main criticism here - it wasn't exactly inviting and comprehensible for someone who knows little about this community, and it certainly didn't make much of an effort to explain for the uninitiated.
When I did get a glimpse of what was going on, I also found the tone a little odd. The comedy reminded very much of a sitcom - a static set, a variety of stock characters and misunderstood comments, and lots of one-liners. This jarred with the plot - Toyin's decision about whether to leave her son behind or not seemed so drastic and Timi's bouncing back and forth between rude-boy and scared child made the situation all too tragic to laugh about. As a drama, there were some very striking and interesting monologues about parenthood, including a fascinating moment where Timi explains just why, as a young black man in London, he's considering carrying a gun - it's a difficult point, but the speech makes it comprehensible.
Having such powerful stuff next to such low comedy just felt strange - and it wasn't helped by the very varied acting. Nigerian accents slipped in and out, and the acting also veered from emotionally overwrought to stereotypes being played for laughs - only Petra Letang managed to find a balance as Toyin's best friend Bev. With audience on all three sides in the Arcola Tent's deep thrust, this was all very close - and the set, in some cases suggestive and in others very detailed, drew us in even further, making it all just a little more uncomfortable.
It's rare for me to write such a personal review, but I have no other way of approaching this - it clearly wasn't for me. And I don't mean 'for me' as in 'to my taste', I mean 'I'm not the target audience' - I'd have hoped to have been drawn in with an eye to the outsider, but I wasn't. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately it didn't leave much for outsiders to enjoy.