Belong

Bola Agbaje

Royal Court and Tiata Fahodzi

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

From 26 April 2012 to 26 May 2012

Review by Philip Fisher

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Belong is, to all intents and purposes, a light comedy that turns into a bitter indictment of Nigeria and its political system.

The drama starts out in the London living room of Kayode and Rita, which designer Ben Stones has modelled on Tracey Emin's bedroom in order to represent the protagonist's mental woes.

The couple are at a low point after moody Kayode has failed in his attempts to achieve election to Parliament after an embarrassing Twitter episode, a theatrical first that will assuredly not be a last.

As if the depression wasn't enough for a man who has sacrificed his career to misguided allegations about the racism of his equally Black political opponent, along comes Jocelyn Jie Essien's Fola, the first of a pair of truly overpowering Nigerian women.

Her job is to sell the country to émigrés and persuade them to come back "home" and she carries it out with the kind of fearsome relish the makes refusal almost impossible.

Against his wife's wishes, the focus then switches to Nigeria after Kayode decides to take a reflective break visiting his Mama, Pamela Nomvete wittily playing the evening's second scary lady.

Mama has semi-adopted a former "area boy" (by the sound of things the Nigerian equivalent to a hoodie), Ashley Zhangasha as Kunle, and is trying to turn him into a local politician with a brief to modernise and remove corruption. The African curse is embodied in the wolfish person of Chief Olowolaye Richard Pepple looking uncannily like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America but behaving more like a Nigerian relative of The Godfather.

Under the direction of Indu Rubasingham, Lucian Msamati, there is now Artistic Director of co-producers Tiata Fahodzi, relishes his opportunity in the main role. He gets superb support from Noma Dumezweni as his long-suffering anti-African wife plus Pamela Nomvete and Jocelyn Jie Essien with their comic turns as caricatures of louder than life African women.

The 90 minute-long piece works best when various permutations debate racism and the meaning of belonging in the context of Africans living in Europe. Every major character has a different background and attitude, clearly helping Bola Agbaje to develop her theses.

As few of them are well-developed, Belong can be a little short on substance and coherence though the later scenes, after Kayode becomes an instant African politician develop unexpected power and pathos and give the evening a rather more rounded feel than had seemed likely.