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An Evening With An Immigrant

Inua Ellams
Inua Ellams and Fuel
Bridge Theatre

Inua Ellam Credit: Inua Ellam

Inua Ellams is probably best known for his acclaimed play Barber Shop Chronicles, but in this evening he presents not a drama but himself, Inua the poet. It is a 90-minute programme first seen four years ago in which he talks of his own life as a framework for sharing poems that draw directly on his experience.

It is carefully shaped but not overtly theatrical. His effervescent personality communicates easily and his delivery has a natural physicality, although he stays sitting on a stool behind his microphone almost the whole time, a text (one presumes) in his hand as an aide memoire.

He makes his entrance in an exotic silk robe but removes it: there’s a simple tee-shirt beneath emblazoned “Never forget to say thank you”, Nigeria is left behind, but there’s a suitcase on the floor beside him, an ominous reminder that with no right to remain here he could be sent packing.

He was born in Nigeria to middle class mixed Muslim / Christian parents; a family, he says that had produced “a long line of troublemakers.” They were well enough off to send him to boarding school (where he was bullied) but they lived in an area of strong fundamentalism with an antagonistic local Imam and felt threatened. An uncle was “disappeared”. In 1996, when Inua was 12 they decided they must leave and come to England. When they get here they come up against our immigrations system. They apply for leave to remain but are stalled when all their documents get lost in the post.

They cross to Ireland, returning after three years to find even their lawyer is now untraceable. He makes friends in Ireland, plays basketball with them, but then has to leave them. At a Holland Park school, he is confronted with racism but he starts to write, haunting public libraries, liberating stubby little pens from Argos.

“Poetry saved my life,” says Inua, and thanks Fuel Theatre (co-producers of this show) for the support that they gave him that led on to success. But even then, as he drank champagne as a guest at Buckingham Palace, the Home Office were turning down the Ellams’ application to remain here.

There is music from DJ Sid Mercutio as occasional backing but it disappears as the lights change for Inua to deliver a poem, focusing attention more tightly on him to match poems that are vivid and very personal. There’s Inua’s mother telling bedtime stories, a lizard on a wall, going clubbing, London by moonlight. Then, towards the end of the evening, the personal becomes more widely political. The well-crafted anecdotes that make the audience laugh turn to rage as he speaks of the struggle against a system that is designed to be hostile, of the huge fees that the Home Office extorts and reminds us of the fate of the millions worldwide seeking a safe home as they flee from war, persecution and privation.

In sharing his personal story, Inua Ellams is both amusing and moving and occasionally emotional. Although four years since he presented the first version of this show, the situation is no easier for those many migrants of whom he reminds us.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton