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Lava at the Bush Theatre – review

Benedict Lombe's autobiographical debut is directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in Lava
© Helen Murray

Benedict Lombe's debut Lava covers a lot of ground, in both literal and metaphorical senses. Lava begins in London but takes the audience on a trip through the Congo, South Africa, Ireland and Wigan. It is a brisk and exciting play, with a firm sense of adventure throughout.

What begins as one woman's quest to find out why her passport does not carry her first name becomes an exploration of the history of racism, imperialism and slavery. The protagonist, who remains nameless throughout the production, is eventually revealed to be Lombe herself, and the meshing of these narratives is thoughtful and well written.

As the main character (and everyone else for that matter), Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo turns in a faultless performance. It would be fair to say this script is demanding on the sole actor but she hardly seems to break sweat, moving between different characters and continents with ease. From the breathless first minute of the production, complete with some fantastic dance moves, Adékoluẹjo is completely at home on stage and even has the confidence to milk the audience's applause before launching into the rest of the story.

Interactions between Lombe and her Congolese mother are some of the funniest moments of the entire production, and there is a great deal of humour woven into the script. Equally, when the playwright relates the "foreigner" status that followed her across continents during her youth, she does not pull any punches – the devastation and psychological impact of this trauma is clear.

The entire production is excellently accompanied by Josh Anio Grigg's sound design, where beauty lies in the small things. During one scene as mother and daughter separate white, red and black kidney beans into different bowls, the soft clink of food on porcelain can be heard. It is intimate, nostalgic details such as these that really give the production life.

The story also has an intriguing end. A clip of Lombe's dramatised response to the murder of George Floyd last year is projected onto the back of the stage, followed by a three-star review from a prominent British newspaper and the headline "more lecture than theatre". The point Lombe makes is crystal clear: a piece of work "that was never intended to be reviewed as theatrical consumption" was being judged as exactly that.

Lava is an engrossing and exciting piece of theatre. But that is far from the only reason you should see it.