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Universal presented by Unshaded Arts | Review

It is, as I have often said, better to leave the audience wanting more than to outstay one’s welcome, and most of the short plays in this compilation could well be expanded, if the writers and collaborators haven’t already started that process. Focusing on the art of storytelling, these engaging plays, taken together, deal with different facets of human life. It was interesting to observe, for instance, the near-ubiquity of mobile telephony, with phones appearing in five of the six plays – there are many (including, dare I say it, a couple of people in the audience) who can’t seem to function for very long without their beloved smartphone.

Maria Yarjah & Hassan Govia - Universal.
Maria Yarjah & Hassan Govia – Universal. Photographer Hope VanCleaf.

It was quite natural for dialogue to be interrupted by a ping or a ring – indeed, in Galentine’s Day by Christine Ubochi, a phone call, put on loudspeaker, advanced the storyline. How the speakerphone effect was actually achieved would be giving too much away (the phrase ‘simple yet effective’ is rightly frowned upon these days), suffice to say it’s a good thing – and still an all too rare thing on stage – for the audience to hear both sides of a phone conversation. I’d have loved to have seen what happens next, and whether a seemingly unlikely friendship between Aisha (Dujonna Gift) and Dami (Clarisso Zamba) would be sustained.

There were moments during the evening that elicited gasps from a discerning London audience, with justification. Questionable Love by Antonia Kleopa very nearly drew pantomime-esque cries of ‘No!’ as Amelia (Tomi Sunomnu) finds herself, in a mind-game with love interest Alex (Joshua Jewkes), in a potentially life-threatening situation. Here, as well as in Do We Have To Go Home? by Sarah Githugu, a man is in a one-on-one conversation with a woman who isn’t his partner.

Another running theme was that of the online persona. X has looked up Y online, and thus X thinks they know ‘everything’ about Y, but they only really know what Y has bothered posting on social media, which may or may not be representative of their actual circumstances in life. But why, given the logicality of a happy-go-lucky online personality being at variance with the sheer reality of an in-person one, does X still express surprise at how things really are for Y?

Bhaijaan by Abir Mohammad and A Drop in the Ocean by Kathryn Webb took very different approaches to dealing with intense and painful situations. In the first, Khafi (Rubayet Al Sharif) is the victim – or perhaps the survivor – of a crime against the person. Neither he nor his close friend Zain (Samir Mahat), interestingly, ever even consider going to the police. Instead, Khafi has looked to his parents (the two characters are teenage schoolboys) but for various reasons – including toxic masculinity in a South Asian context – there’s next to no hope for closure. It’s a difficult play to watch, but raises some important issues about family life, and explores why it isn’t as easy as some people say it is to just walk away from it all.

I struggled somewhat with A Drop in the Ocean – there was a long silence before Gina (Alysha Nelson) suddenly indulges in what is best described as verbal diarrhoea, though to her credit it is sustained to the end. Abi (Christie Fewry) just wants to take some time out, or so it initially seems, and Gina’s line of questioning crosses over into intrusiveness: why precisely, aside from personal interest, does she suddenly need to know so much Abi? The salient point seemed to be that reaching out and talking to people is worthwhile, because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. In the timeframe of a short play, the point is sufficiently made, albeit rather abruptly, that Gina’s life isn’t exactly free of problems either.

Rounding off the evening was Paintaz by Syeshia Sweeney, a quirky and appropriately hilarious piece, given the deep content of some of the other plays. It happened to be rather topical thanks to a recent story about a school facing an investigation on the instruction of the Secretary of State for Education, at least partly because a pupil reportedly identifies as a cat, and the school reportedly accepts that choice. The feline behaviour displayed in this play, however, isn’t a conscious choice, but rather the result of hypnosis from some years ago whose power, for some reason, has re-emerged.

There’s something to be said here about how external influences over which people have no control continue to affect them for years or even decades. Absurdity aside, the play shed some light on the kind of interactions people like Bette (Daniela Lucinda Santos) have when talking to people of colour: in trying to put across their willingness to embrace cultural diversity (whatever that actually means!), they put their foot in it, inadvertently saying something quite contrary to what sensitivity towards ethnic minorities would actually entail.

A brisk evening, these plays do not, despite their brevity, try to cram too much in. A useful temperature check to see what topics and themes new plays are exploring, there’s the right amount of both emotional depth and light entertainment.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

An evening of short plays that shine a light on universal stories driven by marginalised voices.
Following the success of their first showing, Unshaded Arts return with the second edition of Universal, an evening of short plays that a light on universal stories driven by marginalised voices.

The ultimate showcase for diverse talent, on and off stage, at the centre of relatable narratives all the while celebrating their (cultural) idiosyncrasies.


A Drop in the Ocean by Kathryn Webb
Directed by Lillian Waddington
Desperately seeking solace and solitude, a desolate Abi takes to the beach to acquaint herself with the sea before she stumbles upon a friendly stranger who is hell-bent on connection and conversation.

Bhaijaan by Abir Mohammad
Directed by Misha Domadia
Crippled by a distressing secret, a teenage boy is impelled to dissect the consequences of his cultural norms with the support of his candid best friend.

Do We Have to Go Home? by Sarah Githugu
Directed by Nicole Sawyerr
As St. Patricks Day revelries begin to die down, a cocksure lothario makes an unlikely pair with an enigmatic influencer as they attempt to keep the night alive and their personal struggles at bay.

Galentine’s Day by Christine Ubochi
Directed by Xanthus
Readying herself for Valentine’s Day with her beau, an Instagram Hairstylist sees to an excited customer prepping for the same occasion when they both discover a startling overlap in their plans.

Paintaz by Syeshia Sweeney
Directed by Chiedza Rwodzi and Hassan Govia
What starts as a boozy Paint and Sip session descends into chaos for two friends when one of them starts to exhibit bizarre, erratic behaviour… and not because of the alcohol!

Questionable Love by Antonia Kleopa
Directed by Rebecca Goh
A festive weekend getaway sees a couple on the brink endeavour to resolve the discord in their relationship while harbouring adverse vitriol and resentment towards one another.

7th July 2023

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