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Review of Expensive Shit at Soho Theatre

Expensive Shit 2017 Photo credit Eoin Carey
Expensive Shit 2017 Photo credit Eoin Carey

Ever look at the title of a show and wonder not only what it means but also why those particular words had been chosen? For example, ‘Urinetown’ is such a bad title for a musical that it’s even referred to in the opening number. Another show with an intriguing title is Adura Onashile’s Expensive Shit which has just opened at the Soho Theatre.

The play tells the story of Tolu (Kiza Deen) and revolves around two toilets. The first is in ‘The Shrine’ nightclub, Lagos 1974 and the second is an unnamed club in Glasgow in 2013.

In Lagos, Tolu and her female friends (Veronica Lewis, Jamie Marie Leary, and Maria Yarjah) practice their dancing, then they practice again. Tolu is relentless in getting them to practice dancing to Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat music. The reason for all this practicing? Like many of their contemporaries, the girls want to get noticed and make it as a dancer in Fela’s band. Seen as a way of escaping a humdrum, poverty-filled life, these girls will do anything, and if necessary, sacrifice everything to get into Fela’s

In Glasgow, things are different. Tolu works in the toilets of a club and looks after the women that come in there (Veronica Lewis, Jamie Marie Leary and Maria Yarjah). In fact, she is very helpful to them. Suggesting the right shade of lipstick and offering help on how to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex by making their necklines more plunging. If it is not busy, Tolu will even chat with her customers as they do their business with the toilet door open.

One of the things that immediately struck me about Expensive Sh*t was the set. Designer Karen Tennent obviously realised very quickly that nightclub toilets are pretty much the same the world over. Some stalls with doors and lots of mirrored walls. And that was what the audience saw, sitting behind one of the walls as if observing through a two-way mirror. This was fine for the Lagos nightclub but felt distinctly uncomfortable at times as the truth about the Glasgow club and Tolu’s friendliness came out. So, despite the difference in locations, we have a play where men exert their power over women either directly or indirectly. The main difference being that in Lagos, the women at least knew what was happening and were willing to go along in an attempt to build a better life for themselves. This is first-rate writing by Adura Onashile, who also directs.

This is a very impressive production, and full credit goes to the four tremendous actors that manage to make the ladies in Lagos so different from those in Glasgow. But, I have to raise a hat to Kiza Deen as Tolu who is on stage the entire time and swaps from her Lagos personality to her Glasgow one at the drop of a hat – or a change in Simon Hayes excellent lighting and Matt Padden’s sound design which moves us effortlessly from one club and time to the other. Deen’s performance is wonderfully nuanced and you can see the woman she has become as her life has changed. Yes, she does what is necessary to survive but, certainly, in Glasgow, she is not just a pawn of ‘the man’ she does what he wants but gives him hell at the same time. One final thing on the performances. The four ladies dancing together in Lagos is just fabulous. Lucy Wild’s choreography is beautifully executed in the space by all four, who have a distinctly individual style but definitely come together as a group when they dance.

Overall, Expensive Shit is a fascinating play. It is really well written and performed and my one criticism is that during the Lagos scenes, I occasionally found it hard to follow the dialogue. The authenticity is great but, at times it was too fast for me to catch everything. However, that aside, I really enjoyed the show and the roughly one-hour running time felt just right for the stories being told. Great, thought-provoking theatre and yes, by the end I fully understood the title.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

One toilet attendant. Two sets of toilets. Worlds apart.
In the toilets of the Shrine nightclub in Lagos, young dancer Tolu dreams of being picked to join the revolutionary band of musician Fela Kuti.

Now, decades later, she’s a toilet attendant in a Glasgow nightclub, servicing drunken revelers and taking tips from men looking for a cheap thrill.

But all that glitters isn’t gold and when a line is crossed Tolu must choose between truth and power.

An all female Black cast star in the Fringe First award-winning play full of wry humour and euphoric dance. Splicing the story of the Shimmy club – prosecuted in 2013 for allowing male patrons to watch the women’s toilets through a ‘spy mirror’ – with flashbacks to the infamous Shrine nightclub in 1980s Lagos, this is an Afrobeat-filled exploration of freedom, power and exploitation.

Performed by Kiza Deen, Veronica Lewis, Jamie Marie Leary and Maria Yarjah
Written and directed by Adura Onashile
Choreographed by Lucy Wild
Produced by Cat Tyre, Scottish Theatre Producers
Music by Fela Kuti

Running Time: 60 mins
Age Recommendation: 16+

Adura Onashile, Scottish Theatre Producers and Soho Theatre present
Expensive Shit
By Adura Onashile
Tue 4 – Sat 22 Apr 2017, 7.15pm. matinees 3pm
Soho Theatre
http://www.sohotheatre.com/

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