Egusi soup is apparently a bit of a slow boiler, but once it gets simmering the flavours rise to the surface and the spicy aromas set your nose twitching.
This comedy drama centres around a Nigerian family, about to set off on a trip to Nigeria for the one-year memorial celebration of the father’s death. The family may be Nigerian, and a lot of the comedy is focussed on cultural quirks, but the issues underlying the story are common to any modern family, with clashes caused by the generation gap, and the conflicting needs for independence and security.
Ellen Thomas, as the overbearing mother with her head in the sand, carries the show with a brilliant performance. Her character is immediate and realistically multi-dimensional, and Thomas skilfully adds endearing touches of comedy to her portrayal of a proud woman refusing to face her demons, mixing parody with the underlying issues – to make them tangible while keeping them at a manageable level.
The writer, Janice Okoh, has earned a reputation for tackling hard-hitting family and relationship themes with enjoyable drama, and Egusi Soup addresses some tough emotional circumstances. But with the use of a clever script and some insightful interpretations of the modern family, Okoh has come up with an original story full of funny scenarios, with an easily-accessible selection of characters.
Most of the drama takes place between two characters at a time, and the relationship between the sisters is particularly well developed, with some emotive acting and heartfelt sisterly disclosure. But the comedy is definitely at its best when more characters are on stage together, when the speed picks up and at times the dialogue ricochets between the actors as smoothly as the pastor’s preaching.
As the family comes together round the dining table to share the meal, the pace livens up, and the interaction between the characters sharpens. The son in law, Dele, played by Nick Oshikanlu, is a clever character who comes slowly out of the background as a not-too-bright, well-meaning but somewhat gullible husband, perfect to parody specific cultural beliefs such as church worship and fertility rites, but also the channel for social comment on more widely-reaching traditions like the relationship between husband and wife.
The sidelines and well-delivered quips from a character clearly in his place under the matriarchal hierarchy provide the humour in a family situation that would otherwise be painful to observe, and his facial expressions in response to the main dialogue speak volumes, causing many a snigger in the stalls.
The audience finds itself firmly drawn into the performance, compelled by the combination of intense subject matter and witty dialogue. Without its comedy value the drama would be a heavy portrayal of the failure of communications between loved ones, and there are moments when these issues are brought to the service and given their full weight.
But Okoh’s script never lets the tension invade the overall snappiness and bounce of the play, and while the story touches on some obviously pervasive problems, the general feel remains light and the humour prevails.
Although the merging of significant issues with light entertainment is well-balanced through most of the play, unfortunately Okoh doesn’t quite manage to pull it off at its close. The everything’s-alright-after-all ending falls a bit flat after the impact of some of the poignant soul searching, and the last couple of scenes feel somewhat hurried – a too-easy conclusion after the emotional build up.
However, the development and direction of the play obviously require a positive ending, and perhaps all that is needed is an extra scene or two to bring the characters and the circumstances to a more gradual and convincing close.
The story is strong enough to take a bit more length, and the interest of the audience was not yet waning. The contrast in flavour and ingredients in the Egusi Soup mix most definitely whets the appetite, and provides a bowl full of entertaining nourishment.
Menagerie and Soho Theatre in association with The Colchester Mercury
Egusi Soup was staged at the Mumford Theatre on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th May, 2012