Egusi Soup, debut play from Bruntwood Winning Writer Janice Okoh, is a heart-warming family drama that has all of the ingredients for an entertaining, boulevard-like, theatrical experience.
Anyia’s family, a British Nigerian family, are preparing to celebrate the late Mr Anyia’s memorial in Nigeria: Mrs Anyia, a strong matriarchal figure, is packing with the help of her daughter Grace (Rhoda Ofori-Attah) and Grace’s husband, Dele (Nick Oshikanlu). When Anne (Anniwaa Buachie), the successful barrister daughter, arrives, past conflicts and unhealed present wounds start to re-emerge between the two sisters; the two daughters and their mother; and Grace and her husband Dele. Meanwhile, an unusual pastor, Mr Emmanuel, played with great comic effect by Lace Akpojaro, tries to infiltrate the family business by preaching the word of the Lord.
This play concerns themes of religion and loss, of generational and cultural conflict within the diasporic discourse of a British Nigerian family. The latter is encapsulated by Grace’s marriage to Dele. Grace was born and brought up in the UK, while her husband Dele is from Nigeria. Grace’s doubts about her marriage originate, to some extent, from her inabilities to fit the role of perfect Nigerian woman and to fulfill her dead father’s wish: that of being a good wife to a Nigerian man and starting a family. This, supposedly a tangent story to the main mother-daughter conflict, does not always ring truthfully, nor is it fully developed, and at its worse takes away a little from the main focus of the play.
The generational conflict between mother and daughters is, instead, far more complex and more credible. The best moments of the play are those when the slightly caricaturesque yet very believable and compelling character of Mrs Anyia probes and challenges her daughters’ beliefs and life-styles. This is also down to the bravura of Ellen Thomas, who has had a long TV-career and also proves to have a strong stage presence and charisma. Ellen Thomas, together with Lace Akpojaro, are the stars of this production, giving solid, convincing performances, which, unfortunately, cannot be matched by the rest of the cast.
The audience responded very well to the punch-lines and to typical cultural mannerisms but I wonder whether there were too many of these and whether the themes might have needed a slightly more serious tone. Moreover, the drawn-out set, divided into the three different spaces, works against the Soho small theatre studio, which feels quite cramped. On the one hand, one can become close observer to the actions; on the other, a good overview of the whole set is lost, regardless of where you sit.
However, this does not take away too much from the production and the play, which amuses, entertains and introduces us to the story of the Nigerian diaspora in Britain.