Relax. Identity Crisis is nothing to do with the state of the nation in the aftermath of the referendum about you-know-what. The ‘pre-show’ sets the scene very well, with news headlines, mostly from redtop tabloid newspapers, reporting on the passing of 19-year-old Chimaka Nwabunie, a relative of this show’s writer and performer, Phina Oruche. Oruche was referred to as a ‘Hollyoaks star’, and that caught me by surprise. She talks about her time on that soap opera very candidly, before asking the audience to note that exactly what was said should remain within the four walls of the theatre space. I am happy to abide by what I tacitly agreed to. I was aware of her previous modelling work – which she, as I expected, went into some detail about – and there was much within that narrative that I didn’t know about either.
This, then, is an autobiographical account, and a refreshingly honest one at that. Far from playing the race card, Oruche found difficulty in comprehending the supposed ‘courage’ in being a young black model whose face and body were on public display through print advertising and other commercial ventures. For her, there was nothing defiant going on, nothing about taking a stand against white privilege, just earning a legitimate living like anyone else in the working population.
Raised by her Nigerian mother in Liverpool, she was only too pleased to get away at the earliest feasible opportunity. The problem was not Oruche’s mother: she seemed as protective, or even over-protective, as any other doting mother. There was simply a general youthful desire to get out and explore the world at large. The mother (voiced, as several other characters are, by Oruche) belongs to a Pentecostalist expression of the Christian faith, with all the emotionalism and evangelical fervency that sort of religion is renowned for. I mention it as it clearly has had some influence on Oruche, whose performance gets quite physical and passionate at times, and her re-enactment of a revival meeting in Los Angeles years later was so thoroughly convincing that I very nearly thought I had been, as it were, taken to church.
Identity Crisis subverts the usual approach to tragedy in a play, beginning with a death and its aftermath before going on to talk about less mournful times. Oruche has a highly compelling manner and gives a thoroughly absorbing performance. The style of humour deployed reminded me of the Channel 4 series Desmond’s, which ran in the early Nineties. There was a stress on changes of tone and accent to portray different people. No costume changes are involved, which kept things going very smoothly, pausing only for effect at certain points.
There’s even a ‘should I really be chortling at this?’ moment, when the subject of being taken by her own hand came up as she struggled to cope with life’s pressures. I was also impressed by the simplicity and lack of pretentiousness throughout. For instance, just to ensure everybody in the audience understands what’s happening, at one point she almost blurts out, “I’m in California now, by the way.”
There weren’t many props in the show, not that a well-written piece of theatre like this needed many. The video and photographic images are used to great effect and are, unusually for a show with such a strong narrative, extremely useful to the production. It’s over all too soon, really, but this is a sharp and insightful play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
“Identity Crisis was created when my life stopped when tragedy struck. I plunged into a deep, dark, interminable grief. The range of emotions I felt and the questions I posed about life and what my value was, made me feel at times like I was in crisis.”
Beginning with the real life story of the sudden death of Phina’s 19-year-old niece in her house in 2011 and the ensuing press intrusion, this show presents us with 60 images of Phina in fashion and provides an illuminating, humorous and candid exposition of life under the glare of the media spotlight.
Phina portrays nine characters: Black, White, Old, Young, Male and Female, each having an Identity Crisis and explores identity struggles that are common to all of us. Through its simple key staging, the show provides a perfect vehicle for Phina’s larger than life characterisations.
Identity Crisis by Phina Oruche
Tue 9 May to Sat 13 May, 2017
52-54 Kennington Oval, London, SE11 5SW