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Ìyà-Ilé (The First Wife)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Oladipo Agboluaje's new play, a prequel to his 2006 critical hit The Estate (which also premiered at the Soho), covers similar thematic territory, as a Nigerian dynasty implodes over the course of a birthday brouhaha.

The Adeyemi family gathers in Lagos for the 40th birthday of the 'first wife' of its head, Chief Adeyemi (whose funeral is the focal point of The Estate, set nearly 20 years later). But as his infedility becomes increasingly indiscreet and his sons (or at least one of them) talk of justice for the poor - in sharp contrast to the preachings of corrupt local evangelist Archbishop Billy Robertson - it doesn't take long for the house of cards to begin tumbling.

Set in 1989 Lagos, the play shows Nigeria in a state of post-colonial aftershock. What's fascinating is the way that Agboluaje clearly highlights extremes of social status - something of a colonial hangover - as being a sympton of the insecurities caused by the corruption, power struggles and resultant insecurities of those at the highest level.

Chief Adeyemi (a comic yet ferocious Jude Akuwudike) is wrestling for governmental influence, using his wife Toyin as a pawn. When she refuses to be used as such, the fallout is brutal, and ambitious servant Helen (a cheeky turn from Estella Daniels) is standing by to take advantage. Yet Toyin, played with assurity and grace by Antonia Okonma, is not entirely blameless, having regularly whipped Helen motivated by an intense (and understandable) mistrust of her influence over the male members of the family.

This cycle of violence and betrayal may be the thematic core of Ìyà-Ilé, but it by no means dominates the tone. The play is in fact largely a comedy, albeit a dark one, with neat gags and an abundance of physical humour greasing the underlying political message (eg Marcy Oni's elaborately oversized formal headdress comically echoes her character's efforts to social climb).

As Adeyemi's sons Soji and Yinka (central players in The Estate), Tobi Bakare and Babatunde Aleshe contrast nicely as, respectively, the best and the worst sides of youthful ambition, while there is strong support from Chucky Venn as the self-serving evangelist, a revolutionary hero and a hypnotic dancing soldier, and Javone Prince as Helen's poor but loyal lover.

Director Femi Elufowoju Jr keeps the action flowing nicely through the course of the many farce-like entrances and exits, while designer ULTZ presents an effective set of drab and effecient wood panels in striking contrast to Moji Bamtefa's bright and beautiful costumes.

- Theo Bosanquet

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