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The 14th Tale

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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One man, one chair, and a vivid poetic imagination. It is hard to envisage a more spare, minimalist staging than that offered by this thoroughly likeable show currently touring the UK following a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe. Written and performed by ‘word and graphic artist’ Inua Ellams, this is a lyrical tour-de-force and engaging montage of his life, from his upbringing in Nigeria to his more adult exploits in Dublin and London.

At the outset a young black man, with apparent bloodstains on his T-shirt and trousers, paces the stage in a state of subdued anxiety. A series of questions is thereby immediately raised, and we learn the answers piece by piece throughout the remainder of this 55-minute monologue.

The thought of a monologue of any length, written in blank verse, might be off-putting to some, but Ellams structures the piece very artfully and keeps you guessing as to how the elements all fit together, while delivering several cameo roles within his own story. The language crackles with descriptive electricity, with only the occasional dud line – “I wanted to be the duvet that keeps her warm” – and balances the more serious aspects, such as his father’s stroke, with a fine sense of the ridiculous. Particularly memorable is the scene where he attempts revenge on an unfaithful girlfriend by filling her shower attachment with red acrylic paint (hence the ‘bloodstains’) only to be rung on his mobile at the crucial moment.

Anyone who relishes language and the expressiveness of simple, direct performance will take pleasure in this show, which is directed by Thierry Lawson and lit by Michael Nabarro. The larger question, however, is whether its gentle charm is sufficient in itself, or whether more substance would give it some welcome dramatic weight.

The opening and closing lines speak of “ash-skinned Africans, born with clenched fists and a natural thirst for battle”. Quite frankly, the piece would benefit from a bit more clenched fist in the writing – and a little less concentration on the amiable mischief-maker. Amiability is a good quality, but it doesn’t really get to grips with the show’s stated aim of “challenging the audience’s expectations of what it is to be a young black male in London today”.

- Giles Cole


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