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Sleepova with Bukky Bakray at Bush Theatre  review

The BAFTA Rising Star hits the London stage

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cast of Sleepova at Bush Theatre
(© Helen Murray)

Four girls gather in a bedroom to celebrate the 16th birthday of Shan, with popcorn and Haribos to mark the rite of passage. That’s the starting point for this effervescently absorbing new play by Matilda Feyişayǫ Ibini, which follows a quartet of four east London school friends over two eventful years as they grow into womanhood.

They face individual challenges. Shan (Aliyah Odoffin) has sickle cell disease which causes her physical and psychological torment; Rey (Amber Grappy) is defiantly queer but is still grieving for her mother who died when she was a toddler; Elle (Shayde Sinclair), a strong Christian finds herself in conflict with her strict parents; Funmi (Bukky Bakray) longs for a boyfriend to make her feel less invisible – and is seeking ways to rediscover her Yoruba heritage.

But they are also like all teenagers everywhere, just trying to grow up in a complicated world, waiting for their exam results, planning their futures, seeking to preserve their sense of individuality and their self-esteem in a society that seems designed to rob them of both.

There are almost too many ideas floating around on Cara Evans’ turquoise-carpeted set, and some don’t land quite as strongly as they might or have enough time to be explored. Rey’s sudden transformation from confidence to doubt is never fully explained; Elle’s discovery of her own sexuality and her parents’ brutal reaction is resolved too neatly. A bereavement and a near-death experience happen without too much comment.

But maybe that sense of events rushing by, with little chance for contemplation, is as true to life as everything about this vivid production, directed with a fine sense of pace by Jade Lewis. Its impact stems from its sense of honesty and also from performances that shine with integrity. 

Bakray, who became a BAFTA Rising Star thanks to her performance in the wonderful movie Rocks (about a group of south London school girls), is the headline star and she is astounding as the witty, direct, disaffected Funmi. She has this quality of seeming just to be, yet there is subtlety and skill in her handling of the switches in Funmi’s moods; she makes you see how her desperate longing to seduce a boy at the prom – with the use of magic, if necessary – is part of her desire simply to escape the poverty and low expectations that are holding her back.

When it is her who recognises that the quartet are “amazing, gorgeous black babes” and leads them in a ritual of affirmation and friendship, it is all the more convincing because Bakray has convinced you of the odds that her character is trying to overcome.

But all the performances are equally convincing. Sinclair is both touching and funny as Elle who begins the play quoting from Proverbs and ends it by promising to make the next year her bitch; Odoffin beautifully conveys the confusion of a girl whose future is blighted by illness and Grappy makes Rey’s temporary abandonment of her friends entirely convincing.

Throughout, Ibini writes with insight and humour conjuring the texture of their lives. Nothing is laid on too heavily. They are four girls bound by love and friendship who together negotiate the problems of early adulthood. It is a pleasure to be in their company.

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