Ìyà-Ilé (The First Wife)

Oladipo Agboluaje
Soho Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

Oladipo Agboluaje has built a big reputation at Soho as the voice of both South London in The Christ of Coldharbour Lane and Nigeria in The Estate.

This new work is the prequel to that Chekhovian tale of a Nigerian family on the skids, featuring several of the same characters. It could best be characterised as a kind of African Men Behaving Badly.

Ultz' design follows the original, once again centring on the family home in Lagos of Chief Olanrewaju Adeyemi (Jude Akuwudike) overseen by garish family portraits. Costume designer Moji Bamtefa also has a field day using every colour under the sun, in a lively production directed for Tiata Fahodzi by its Artistic Director, Femi Elufowoju, jr.

The opulent house is the setting for the 40th birthday of the Chief's scary wife Toyin, a mighty lady filled to the brim with a sense of her own self worth.

The menfolk and the country are both infected with inbred corruption, in a period when the military have taken control of Nigeria, threatening the class system that has protected the Adeyemis for generations.

The proud Chief divides his time between keeping hold of his wealth and attractive younger women. First son Yinka (Babatundé Aléshé) is a chip off the old block, stealing house girl Helen from the family's driver, Lomi (Javone Prince).

His younger brother, Tobi Bakar's Soji, could not be a greater contrast. His instincts are Marxist and he has an innocent's view of the fair sex. Sadly, his idealistic view is dealt a series of sharp blows, first when he meets a political leader who had become his hero, then a larger than life Evangelist preacher, and finally in witnessing the behaviour of the elders of his own family.

The play builds to a dramatic comic climax bordering on farce during the birthday party, with Estella Daniels' quiet Helen playing a pivotal role, prefiguring her elevated position in The Estate.

Ìyà-Ilé manages an impeccable balance between portraying a violent country where excess and poverty live side by side and amusing its audience with rich family comedy that can be extremely funny. That will be even more the case for anyone who is able to understand all of the Nigerian terms that provoke howls of laughter from those in the know.

Femi Elufowoju, jr works well with his ensemble and while those playing family members might be the stars, Marcy Oni catches the eye, showing impressive comic timing in a series of supporting roles.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher