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Bush Theatre presents Lava by Benedict Lombe | Review

I was one of the people in the UK that the late Nelson Mandela wrote about in Long Walk to Freedom, who thought his ‘Christian name’ (his choice of phrase) was Free, because there was a popular song released in 1984 with the repeated line ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. This was, of course, before the days of Google and Wikipedia. Her (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo) – the character has a name, but HM Passport Office has a problem with it, which itself becomes part of the narrative – enjoyed some freedom during her time in South Africa. She was born in Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was called at the time, but with Mobutu still in charge, and civil war on the cards, her family decided they were better out than in.

Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in 'Lava' at the Bush Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray
Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in ‘Lava’ at the Bush Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray

But this show is deeper than the ‘woe is me’ and ‘triumph over adversity’ stories of old. There’s anger and frustration at Government bureaucracy, which brings a near-universal familiarity to proceedings. It’s tinged with a hilarious punchline in which Her waxes lyrical about how poetic it is, given the more savage aspects of the days of the British Empire, “that the British passport should be the same deep red as the colour of blood”, only to discover that thanks to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, her new passport is actually blue.

I’ve skipped a fair bit of the storyline – deliberately, because there’s nothing to be gained by giving it all away. Adékoluẹjo has the stage to herself, and quickly develops a natural rapport with the audience, which she maintains in various ways, including joyous dancing, direct addresses, and at one point, affirmation by facing the different sections of the audience, sat in three ‘blocks’, by smiling. It’s a brief but well-structured play, with regular but subtle checks on how the audience is holding up during what can be a harrowing storyline.

The show’s conclusion was unusual, and highly progressive, going beyond the usual call to arms to fight prejudice and injustice and encouraging people to continue to build on the work that has already been done. Yes, it’s a feelgood ending, but one that is realistic rather than the stuff of fairy tales. While the story is told from a single perspective, I didn’t feel any particular desire to hear about what went on from a different angle – Her is astutely aware of occasions when her emotions might have run a bit high, for instance. Oh, and a certain publication (not this one) was called out for describing a response to the Black Lives Matter protests as “more lecture than theatre”. It was, in any event, “something that was never intended to be reviewed as theatrical consumption” – in other words, it didn’t entertain because reactions to an actual murder wouldn’t be entertaining (and neither, in my view, should they be).

While Lava speaks truth to power, the main emphasis is on telling it like it is to theatregoers, providing some details not always easy to come across elsewhere. Her quotes chapter and verse from the 1611 King James Bible, a section of the Old Testament used to justify the slave trade. I had a religious upbringing, and never knew the passage in question was used for such purposes. I assume the Church prefers not to talk about it. But the Church does still mention a New Testament verse: “The truth shall make you free.” And there’s certainly a lot of truth in this engaging and thought-provoking piece of theatre.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

When a woman receives an unexpected letter from the British Passport Office, she is forced to confront an old mystery: why does her South African passport not carry her first name? Armed with the wisdom of favourite 90s TV shows, she sets out on a journey that will take her back to the turmoil of Mobutu’s Congo, growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa, moving to Ireland, and finding love in a hostile England.

As her journey becomes inextricably linked with the tides of global history, how far will she go to unravel the truth? By turns wickedly funny and strikingly lyrical, Benedict Lombe’s Lava is an explosive debut that will turn the way you see the world on its axis.

Bush Theatre presents
By Benedict Lombe
Directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike
Designed by Jasmine Swan
Lighting Design by Jai Morjaria
Video Design by Gino Green
Performed by Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo

9 July – 7 August
Press Night – 14 July at 7 pm
Lava will be broadcast online 16 – 21 August 2021


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