Review by Harry Bower
On the way home from the Bush Theatre I thought back on my childhood. Those formative teenage years were spent hanging out with friends or attending parties, watching scary films and discussing the latest gossip. Having just watched Sleepova, a new play by Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini, I realised though that my recollection was omitting a few details, namely those solitary moments I felt at my lowest and relied on my wonderful friends to help me through it. The cast of Sleepova bought those memories flooding back in the form of this play which felt like a warm embrace; a truly life-affirming two hours of theatre.
Rey, Elle, Shan and Funmi are teenage girls studying for their GCSEs and fretting about who they’ll take to prom. Rey is a proudly queer fireball of a character, unapologetically savage in her sarcasm and wit with a stiff upper lip attitude (on the face of it), and Elle a repressed child of a Christian family with overbearing parents and a tendency to preach to her friends. Shan is the most visibly struggling of the group, celebrating her sixteenth birthday and suffering with sickle cell disease, coming to terms with her mortality and trying to push through and celebrate the life she has rather than lament her potential lack of future. Funmi completes the group, a more eccentric character used strongly as light relief, but whom actually ends up with one of the most powerful story arcs of all.
The performances of the cast are star-making. Amber Grappy as Rey is making her professional stage debut in Sleepova, but you wouldn’t know it. Hers is a performance strong of will and with a calming authority about it. Shayde Sinclair as Elle is also making their debut and is equally impressive. It is Sinclair who has some of the most shocking and gasp-inducing lines to deliver which go against everything the play stands for. To provide this level of antagonism while maintaining the audience’s sense of likeability and sympathy for her character is an achievement in itself.
Aliyah Odoffin plays Shan and does an admirable job of portraying someone stuck in limbo thanks to a chronic illness. Her comic timing is brilliant as is her knack of delivering the right facial expression at the right moment, and in thrust staging Odoffin is the most captivating of the four in her body movement and posture. With her back to one section of the audience it never felt as though we were disconnected. Finally, Funmi is embodied by Bukky Bakray. Named one of BAFTA’s breakthrough programme participants, it’s not hard to see why. She is charismatic and delivers a performance that is both charming and intense in equal measure.
The play follows the group as it undergoes significant change. High school turns into college. Incidents between members threaten to tear everything apart. Members leave and return. Challenges are faced and overcome. Act one sucks the audience in with lovable interactions and relatable circumstance, before act two peels back the layers of drama which have been bubbling under the surface, building to a notable and emotional finale.
Love is a big theme in this play. The characters crafted by the writer have depth, heart, effortless charm and serious flaws, and endear themselves to the those watching mainly through comedy, which only makes the dramatic moments more impactful. At times I literally wanted to get out of my seat and give them all a hug to reassure them everything would be alright. There is a chemistry in the cast and a naturalistic style to the writing which make the relationships between the foursome authentic and believable. The show is billed as an ode to black girls and femmes whose parents didn’t allow them to attend sleepovers, and inside the play text the author makes a direct appeal to any who may be watching; “Consider this play an invitation. You are safe here. You can be yourself here. You can dream here”. It’s a beautiful sentiment for what turns out to be a beautiful play.
While personally I may not have understood all the references, the genius of Feyisayo Ibini’s writing ensured I didn't lose anything from the show. The context in which everything’s written means an audience member from a different background can learn in real-time about the lived experiences of the characters on-stage. This representation in action is of the highest quality, taking in cultural background, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, chronic illness and disability. Whether it’s understanding references to a Babalawo, the impact of sickle cell crisis on a teenager, or how difficult it must be growing up queer in a homophobic household – none of these experiences will be universal for the audience and the book is written with this in mind.
This is a good place to mention that the accessibility of the show is superb. Every single performance on this run is in a relaxed atmosphere, including press night, and a fun recorded voiceover by the cast at the start advises its audience on how they can stay most comfortable in their experience. The website features links to pre-show descriptive information and the theatre is planning sensory adapted performances. Lighting design for the show is effective and the play benefits from the simplicity, though a slight issue with the sound (from my seat anyway) left me cupping my ears to hear recorded messages from family members.
I left Sleepova feeling uplifted, grinning my face off, and feeling honestly quite emotional. Unafraid of packing punches but doing so in such a love and joy-filled way, it is an honest and nostalgic take on growing up with your friends around you and the challenges young people face today with circumstances beyond their control. The writing is gorgeously rich, silky smooth throughout yet gritty and brutal when it is appropriate. It is brilliantly funny and peppered with a mixture of poignant, and iconic moments, which make you fall in love with each character one by one. There is sensitive and not overbearing direction by Jade Lewis which embraces its thrust staging rather than being rattled by it, and involves all sections of the audience. Its superb casting is the cherry on top.
In a Twitter thread before the show opened, writer Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini described opening a show at the Bush Theatre as ‘a dream’. Well, when they wake up, they will realise it wasn’t a dream after all. It is very special and startlingly brilliant reality, and everyone should buy a ticket to watch it immediately.
Sleepova is playing at the Bush Theatre until 8 April. For more information and to buy tickets visit: https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/sleepova/.
Photos by Helen Murray