At its heart Egusi Soup, a play by Bruntwood Prize winner Janice Okoh, is a comedy-drama about a British-Nigerian family experiencing the familiar tension between the life they have built themselves in the West and the traditions that their mother, Mrs Anyia (Lorna Gayle), left behind.
The trigger event that drives the action is the one year memorial for Mr Anyia. The suitcases are forever nearly packed and the family (if not the storm clouds) are gathering ahead of a trip back to Lagos to celebrate Mr Anyia and his legacy. It is clear from the outset that life is not quite the rose-tinted paradise that Mrs Anyia would like those in Nigeria to believe.
The formal structure of Egusi Soup hints at Janice Okoh’s background, which includes an MA in Creative Writing and a place on the BBC Drama Writers Academy. It makes a refreshing change to see a two act play that takes place in an traditionally linear fashion. Flowing from scene to scene, the play moves confidently through the action and delivers a number of enjoyable set-pieces before building inevitably to a resolution where secrets are unveiled and resolution is found in forgiveness and acceptance.
Okoh clearly knows these characters and Egusi Soup is anchored by Gayle’s performance as Mrs Anyia. Gayle treads a careful path between colourful stereotype and a wife who has lost the person who filled her world. Any slip into cliché is knowing and is offset by the sense that this is someone desperately trying to hold onto tradition as a way of holding onto her husband. This is drawn out of the smaller touches like the spare room that still holds Mr Anyia’s possessions and her willingness to believe he was poisoned rather than taken by cancer before his time.
The comedy is primarily driven by the two male characters, Richard Pepple’s Pastor, Mr Emmanuel, and Seun Shote’s Dele. These draw on stock roles of the Nigerian entrepreneur and evangelical; they artfully mirror each other and serve to bookend the proceedings with light relief that, whilst firmly based in Nigerian culture, is accessible to everyone.
Here Okoh demonstrates a subtlety in her writing; drawing out the strange duality in the two positions without overtly referencing it. Mr Emmanuel being a fine entrepreneur and a man who sees opportunity everywhere, whereas Dele is a hopeless businessman who is happy to turn to religion as the answer to his financial and fertility worries.