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Review: Nine Lives (Bridge Theatre)

Zodwa Nyoni's piece comes to the Bridge as part of the venue's socially distanced season

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Nine Lives
© Richard Lakos

On a wet and windy night, it felt difficult to leave a warm hearth and subject myself to an hour-long monologue which would reveal, yet again, what an unkind and unempathetic country Britain has become. There's so much of that in the daily news headlines.

But the Bridge was packed (in as far as socially-distanced theatre can be) and welcoming and Nine Lives is a play about an asylum seeker that portrays kindness as well as despair. Written by Zodwa Nyoni, presented by Leeds Studio and first seen in London at the Arcola, it is a vivid and compassionate study of the travails of Ishmail, driven out of Zimbabwe when it is discovered he is gay, as he attempts to navigate the casual cruelties of the British immigration system.

Based on a number of researched stories, in Lladel Bryant's appealing performance Ishmail emerges clearly as an individual, trapped in a high-rise flat in Armley, Leeds, where he is harassed by other residents, exploited by those who take money from the state to house and protect him, and baffled by a system where the rules are always changing. But he also encounters tolerance and acceptance from those who, like him, have less than nothing.

What makes Nine Lives so attractive is the way that Nyoni's muscular, flexible writing which dips between poetry and intently observed realism, conjures an entire world with a minimum of effort. The moment when Ishmail leaves his flat and begins to walk on the streets of Leeds, with their stone flagstones commemorating the great and good of the city – Barbara Taylor Bradford, Alan Bennett – and the people in their varied coloured tracksuits is both a conjuring of the spirit of a place and a portrait of a man excluded from life, but longing to embrace it. "I want to learn everything."

This sense of isolation is the dominant mood – the waste of people who have already suffered and yet are told they have to wait to begin to live, trapped in a relentless limbo that robs them of their dignity. The script is an indictment of a system that has become deliberately unwieldy and unfair, but also a way of restoring and celebrating the humanity that it strips away.

With the help of Alex Chisholm's direction and Ed Clarke's sound design, Bryant wonderfully brings it all to life in front of our eyes, slipping in and out of impersonations of the different characters he encounters – the thug with a dog, his desperate flatmate, and above all the down-to-earth Bex, who even while struggling as a single parent finds a tolerance and forgiveness that the authorities so singularly fail to display.

It's often very funny, and always pointed. I was glad I left home to think some more about the plight of others who simply long to belong and who no longer have a home to call their own.

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