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Hoard © Lidia Crisafulli

Hoard at The Arcola Theatre, Dalston

24 May 2019 | Billie Manning

The dinner party with an unexpected guest is a fruitful set-up for drama, and it’s even more fruitful when the unexpected guest is your mother, and the dinner party is for the rest of your family to meet your new boyfriend, as happens to Bili Bakare in journalist Bim Adewunmi’s début play.

Described by Aduwemni as ‘a love letter to East London and also the many Nigerian-British families who live there’, the play is set over a single evening in which we learn just why the Bakare sisters are so keen to keep their mother Wura (Ellen Thomas) away from boyfriend Brian (Tyler Fayose) - or any new partners - and long-held tensions rise to the surface.
 
It’s almost as unfortunate as the play’s set-up, to end up with an actor having to be replaced at the last minute on press night, but Estella Daniels (standing in for Emmanuella Cole as middle sister Ami) and the rest of the cast cope with the change-up with supreme confidence. The play is tremendously well-cast, with not a weak link between them - the sarcastic banter between the sisters is a joy to behold and a credit to both the acting and the writing. The sisters are completely in sync: ‘Clap for yourselves!’ they announce, and then they do, one, two, three. Thomas has so much presence as Wura it is unbelievable, entering and exiting the stage with all the regality of a monarch, whereas the nervous energy of Fayose as Brian is put to brilliant comic use.

Hoard- Ellen Thomas photo by Lidia Crisafulli
Ellen Thomas as Wura © Lidia Crisafulli

The play is stuffed with hilarious lines, particularly in the first half (the play opens with Ami musing ‘I feel like Nigella Lawson. Only, you know, not rich. And well, black. Nigeria Lawson!’) but also during its more serious moments. ‘Sorry our house is not Changing Rooms. Sorry I’m not Carol Smillie!’ declares Wura in self-defense. 
 
The play could have carried itself on the level of the tension created by the surprise meeting between Brian and Wura, without the change in tone brought by the reveal of Wura’s hoarding issues, where some of the writing lands a bit too squarely on the nose, with the characters sometimes overexplaining their conflicts. People very rarely know quite what they’re really arguing about at the level Adewunmi’s characters seem to, and this over-explicitness is mirrored in Femi Elufowoju’s direction at times. The characters stand in the very corners of the stage floor among the audience as they argue, but this literal creation of distance seems a little forced.
 
But the sheer good-heartedness, chemistry and humour of the production means we are invested until the very end, rooting for Wura and her daughters to come not just to a temporary truce but a more lasting peace. This is a great first play, and we wait eagerly to see where Adewunmi goes next.

Hoard is at the Arcola until 8 June.
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