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Review: and breathe... (Almeida Theatre)

Yomi Ṣode's ode to grief and loss has its world premiere in north London

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
...and breathe
© Marc Brenner

Maybe the biggest compliment you can pay and breathe… is that this feels like so much more than a one-man show. In the trusted hands of director Miranda Cromwell, the production is at turns sad, uplifting and hopeful – the effect as a whole is a sensitive exploration of grief at the loss of a loved one.

With the play's distilled and moving language, it comes as little surprise that writer Yomi Ṣode has such a strong grounding in poetry. His gift with words is woven in the finer details he lavishes on Big Mummy, matriarch and catalyst for the story. Although the majority of the script is delivered from her great-nephew Junior's (David Jonsson) point of view, other characters within Big Mummy's family are inhabited by Jonsson over the course of the evening.

In truth, this can be slightly confusing to begin with and differentiating between the separate voices is a challenge. From about 20 minutes in however, the production really starts to warm up and with the family tree more or less established, it's easier to grasp what is going on. By that point Junior has finished providing the context to Big Mummy's illness and proceeds to take the audience on a journey through her final days and funeral.

Ṣode's thoughtful writing is brought to life by an excellent turn from Jonsson. It says a lot that he is practically by himself on a stark stage for 60 minutes and at no point allows the sincerity of his performance to drop. He navigates a mix of emotions and situations with ease - different scenes see Junior chatting up a girl on the DLR or impersonating his stiff uncle, much to the hilarity of the audience. The mood could not be more different during Big Mummy's final hours in a hospital bed, but both humour and solemn moments are handled with aplomb.

The production's soundtrack is provided by jazz guitarist Femi Temowo and the multi-instrumentalist plays songs live behind an onstage mixing desk. Using guitars, keyboards and drum machines, Temowo channels the tone of the performance beautifully. A sweeping orchestral opening is followed by more jaunty highlife-inspired tracks, whilst an Amsterdam nightclub scene is soundtracked by Kendrick Lamar.

The spontaneous partnership between musician and actor is fantastic to watch – there is always a knowing glance, a smile, a joke between the two of them, as Junior calls Temowo by his first name. It is a pleasure to watch two different artists working with one another so seamlessly, the highlight of this touching play at the Almeida.

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