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House of Ife at the Bush Theatre – review

Beru Tessema's world premiere runs until 11 June

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Karla-Simone Spence, Jude Akuwudike and Michael Workeye
© Marc Brenner

Take a riveting family drama, filter it through the prism of a specific cultural heritage, set it in a bang up-to-date version of London, stir in a gallery of vividly drawn characters, some riotous humour, and dialogue that fairly bounces off the stage, and you'll have some measure of Beru Tessema's punchy new play. It's bracing, bold and deceptively ambitious.

For a text that centres on a bereavement (the Ife of the title is the firstborn son, now dead from a drugs overdose, of a London Ethiopian family struggling to deal with the emotional and spiritual fallout from his passing), House of Ife positively brims with vitality. Tessema's younger characters – Ife's bereft twin sister Aida and two younger siblings Tsion and Yosi – have the tang of authenticity: funny, often crude, their speech full of colloquialisms, they sound like young Black adults you might hear all over any major UK city.

The contrast between the way they express themselves and that of their more traditional, delicately observed mother Meron (Sarah Priddy, full-throated and exquisite) is beautifully delineated. Tessema throws another, equally convincing, voice into the mix with father Solomon, newly arrived from Addis Ababa apparently to mourn his son, and full of equal parts preachy religious zeal and smooth-talking BS, presumably in an attempt to smooth over the frayed edges created by the fact that he abandoned Meron and family for a much younger woman some years ago. He's a slippery, beguiling character and Jude Akuwudike embodies him with exactly the right combination of fervent implacability and subtle ruthlessness.

As Aida, Tsion and Yosi respectively, Karla-Simone Spence, Yohanna Ephrem and Michael Workeye are so good and so plausible as siblings that it's almost disappointing to check the programme afterwards and realise that they are not in fact related to each other. Tessema unerringly captures the unique combination of support, rivalry and oblique brutality inherent in this specific area of the family unit, and the way these three glare at, or touch, each other, or suddenly erupt into cathartic, inappropriate laughter or wildly misplaced dancing, suggests a common history and lived experience that extends far beyond the confines of Frankie Bradshaw's primary coloured, appropriately cluttered council flat set. It's truly magnificent acting.

Spence brilliantly conveys the haunted pain and guilt of the surviving twin, constantly in a state of heightened emotion but with a fascinating suggestion that this may just be who she is, regardless of her current grief. Ephrem invests the rather less histrionic middle sister Tsion, a primary school teacher-in-training, with a warmth, watchfulness and innate likability that proves infinitely touching. Workeye is a knockout as their mouthy younger brother, desperately trying to find his place in this strongly female-oriented domestic world, and comically bewildered by the tensions between his modern London life and his hyper-religious Ethiopian roots. Neither as insensitive nor as tough as he first appears, he's an irresistible creation, initially recognisable, shading later into a figure of genuine depth.

The writing stalls only in the penultimate scene, when recriminations crash onto a family dinner table like so much molten lava, and revelations are aired about Solomon's true intentions, and regarding the lamented Ife himself. Having given us a tumultuously enjoyable ninety minutes of intrigue, humour and piercingly accurate observations, it's disappointing that the script then descends into a tsunami of information that, while perfectly credible, feels like a heck of a lot to take in at one sitting. It's a flaw in what is otherwise a really wonderful new play.

Lynette Linton's sublime direction is as assured and gutsy as the piece itself, mining the text for all its passion and comic potential. The galvanising, realistic scenes are punctuated by trance-like, almost ritualistic sections that lend the production a stop-start tension that further ups the emotional ante. The overall impression is of boundless joy co-existing with throbbing torment, and it's undeniably powerful.

All in all, this is one of the most vibrant pieces of new work I've seen for years, even at this illustrious address, and Linton and her exceptional team have given it the best of all possible world premieres.