“an important story, and judging by the racially charged goings-on of last week, couldn’t be timelier”
I know what the embodiment of true joy and self-assuredness looks like: It looks like Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in a sunshine yellow jumpsuit dancing hard all over a lava-encrusted multi-level set to a double-time remix of Aretha’s ‘Think’; dancing so hard she leaves the audience to three rounds of applause whilst she gets her breath back. And thus, we are introduced to “Her”.
“Her”- as Her Majesty’s Passport office keeps referring to her- is trying to renew her British passport with no luck. A dual citizen, her first name is missing from her South African passport, and she needs to fix this before they’ll renew her British one. But why is her name missing in the first place? This mystery sparks the beginning of a journey back, bridging decades and continents, beginning in a colonised Congo, and ending in modern day London, all in search of a sense of belonging. Though Adékoluẹjo begins with a joyous dance, the story itself is one of struggle and fury.
Though later in the story the name of “Her” is confirmed as writer Benedict Lombe, Lombe having employed an actor to play the role might easily have given the performance a fictional detachment. But Adékoluẹjo undertakes the story as though it were her own, with so much love and care that the separation between writer and performer is invisible to the audience’s eye. Slipping between prose and colloquialism, both the script and Adékoluẹjo are completely charming.
The premise is strong and compelling: The reason behind her missing first name is fascinating and perfectly symbolic of the messy nuances of identity and history. But there’s a disconnect between the resolution of this first dilemma and the rest of the story, which is still rich in character and content but without a central element to keep it on track. The ending too feels messy, as though Lombe couldn’t quite decide how to finish, so she picked all the options.
This is really all much of a muchness though because it hardly dampens the effects of Lombe’s passionate and remonstrative script and Adékoluẹjo’s effervescent performance. This is an important story, and judging by the racially charged goings-on of last week, couldn’t be timelier.
“I hated it a whole lot less than I thought I was going to ten minutes in”
Whilst the one-man show has become the de facto format for new theatre this year, it’s also really the only format appropriate for a play expounding on the benefits of narcissism as a world view, with the help of nothing but a flip chart, some pink haze lighting and a playlist of big ‘80s hits (Sam Glossop).
“We’re all self-obsessed. The only difference between you and me, is I’m louder”, so says Will Adolphy, dressed in sunset leggings and neon pink sweat bands, as he takes us through the five lessons we need in order to fully embrace his narcissistic teachings.
When Will was twenty, his dad committed suicide. He’d spent his whole life saying to Will, “I’m doing all this for you!” But a life dedicated to everyone’s but his own happiness ultimately led to unbearable misery. So, Will posits, the best thing you can do, instead of trying to be a good, selfless, caring person, is to be entirely selfish and self-obsessed, or rather, own up to how selfish and self-obsessed you truly are.
The premise smacks of Richard Gadd’s careful cocktail of shocking comedy and red-raw honesty in shows such as Monkey See, Monkey Do. But it’s a very difficult thing to get right, and Adolphy doesn’t quite hit the mark. All the ingredients are there: he’s clearly willing to put his own pain front and centre, and he’s got good- sometimes great- comic timing.
But the aim of this story seems to be either to genuinely preach that we should all only do what we want and feel like doing, regardless of how it affects others, in which case, it feels like a trauma narrative and not something to laugh at. And if this is exactly what Adolphy wanted, he needs to lean in and, as cruel as it sounds, properly access his trauma. He needs to choke the audience’s laughter, rather than use it as an ineffective shield.
Alternatively, Adolphy is trying to preach a kind of individualism which would ultimately make society a happier place, in which case, he needs to work out how he really wants to put this message across because that’s not what I left feeling. The comedy is too light where the message needs some traction. Yes, it might be amusing to sing a song about how big your penis is, and then write your phone number on a flip chart, but it doesn’t really get the message across that being a narcissist is a winning idea.
The other option is that Adolphy is going for a kind of satire, in which case, it’s got to be a lot funnier and a lot grittier.
In short, The Narcissist (directed by Gemma Aked-Priestly) doesn’t know what it is. But with a brutal re-write it could be very interesting. And, in a kind of defence, I hated it a whole lot less than I thought I was going to ten minutes in.