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Sleepova by Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini at Bush Theatre

Sickle cell, sickle cell, sickle cell!” cries Shan (Aliyah Odoffin), stopping what would have been a playful onslaught by her close-knit group of friends during one of their animated conversations: they never have a boring one, which is absolutely fine, because boring conversations make for boring theatre. A play could have been written just about someone’s experience of living with sickle cell disease, and how it both impacts themselves and those around them – Shan finds herself in hospital whenever there is a severe episode of pain, called a ‘sickle cell crisis’, and what triggers a crisis isn’t always clear. But this ambitious play covers a lot more ground than that.

Bukky Bakray (Funmi) in SLEEPOVA by Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini at Bush Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray.
Bukky Bakray (Funmi) in SLEEPOVA by Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini at Bush Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray.

Rey (Amber Grappy), who despises her full first name, Alfreda, to the point where she refuses to be identified by it, is a larger-than-life character, looking forward to the next UK Black Pride event. Funmi (Bukky Bakray) is very much interested in Shan’s brother, Solomon, and completing the quartet is Elle (Shayde Sinclair), dubbed the ‘resident pastor’ of the group on account of her Bible bashing. Jesus appears to her boyfriend, inasmuch as she talks about “my relationship with God”, something she is interested in, well, taking further.

They are all getting along so well that it’s easy – and correct – to suspect that not everything would continue to be tickety-boo in perpetuity. There was almost certainly going to be, for instance, a clash between the proudly queer Rey and the deeply religious Elle, though the devil (so to speak) is in the detail. Quite how the great chasm between them was going to be resolved, or even if it would be, was considerably less predictable. Various obstacles and events in the young women’s lives threaten to turn their close bond into something looser, though their commitment not to naturally drift apart over time is admirable in a world filled with billions of people.

Some of the laugh-out-loud humour comes from the friends’ indignance of one another – they know each other so well that it’s relatively easy for them to work out when one of them is being economical with the truth. The rest of the humour is observational comedy. I liked a series of responses to one of Shan’s possible suitors describing her as a brunette. Hilarious as it was, particularly when stereotypical viewpoints on black men are flipped over and projected onto white men (proving beyond reasonable doubt how absurd such opinions are, whoever they are applied to), it goes on to reveal, somewhat poignantly, Shan’s reasons for choosing to pursue the kind of relationship she wants.

A full range of human emotions is experienced during this fascinating production. It’s the sort of show that, in a sense, can’t win – if they all stay together, it’s predictable (friends forever and all that), but if any of them wishes to break away from the group, however amicably, it could be argued that their part is underwritten, or at least not as rounded and developed as the others. Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini, the show’s playwright, writes in the programme, “Some people might wander – Matilda, why’s there so much swearing in this?” I don’t consider myself one of those people. Indeed, given the age profile of the characters, I would have expected a lot more swearing, and it says something (positive!) about the skill of the writer to give her characters a much broader vocabulary than mere ‘eff, cee and effing cee’.

Elle, like many people growing up in Britain with parents from overseas, must navigate a proverbial tightrope, living in a liberal society but under the roof of conservative parents. Exposed to what was essentially a form of conversion therapy, the recollection of Elle’s experiences briefly but powerfully demonstrates the damage such interventions can do. Overall, by showing how friends stick together through thick and thin, the play does not need to score political points. Instead, it surreptitiously encourages the audience to look to friends for support – what central Government does (or does not) do is neither here nor there for these sisters from other mothers. It’s a bold, brisk and bombastic production, enjoyable as much as it is engaging.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Sleepova, an ode to black women and their boundless spirits and wild dreams is a new Bush commission from Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini (Little Miss Burden) opening on 24 February 2023 (press night 1 March). Sleepova marks the stage debut of three actresses including Bukky Bakray (Rocks), who at 19, became the youngest BAFTA Rising Star Award recipient as well as one of the youngest ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ nominees.

‘We don’t get to choose when we become women, y’know?’

Join Rey, Elle, Shan, and Funmi. Armed with sugary snacks, school gossip, and secret questions they can only ask each other, their sleepovas are pretty much a sacred space for them.

As each year tugs them further into adulthood and life doesn’t pan out quite as they imagined they struggle to hold on to a friendship that they swore would last a lifetime.

A Bush Theatre production
by Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini
Directed by Jade Lewis
Set and Costume Design – Cara Evans
Lighting Design – Elliot Griggs
Cast – Bukky Bakray, Amber Grappy, Aliyah Odoffin, Shayde Sinclair
24 February – 8 April 2023

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