The Clinic at the Almeida Theatre review: by turns fascinating and frustrating but not afraid of big questions

·3-min read
 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

In his latest play, which is by turns fascinating and frustrating, Dipo Baruwa-Etti explores elements of contemporary Black experience through the story of a smugly comfortable British-Nigerian family challenged by an outsider. Influenced somewhat by the Black Lives Matter protests of the last couple of years, it asks if change is best brought about from within or without the system, and what happens to those consumed by the struggle for equality.

Fractious family relationships are well observed in Monique Touko’s slick production at the Almeida. Baruwa-Etti skilfully blends big themes, authentically jagged and overlapping dialogue and a trademark hint of the supernatural. But the politics and the positions of the characters are too pat. The Clinic feels schematic compared to more audacious shows we’ve already had from this prolific 27-year-old.

It opens on the 60th birthday of Maynard Eziashi’s Segun, who came to Britain with nothing aged seven and became a bestselling psychotherapist and a Tory supporter with a £2m home. His loving wife Tiwa (Donna Berlin) volunteers at a women’s shelter: daughter Ore is a trainee doctor; son Bayo a policeman, married to Labour MP Amina.

They’re all good people, or so they think, until their fragile, bickering complacency is smashed open by Wunmi, a frustrated activist with a baby son, driven to the brink of suicide following her partner’s death. She settles on the family like a nihilistic cloud, partially usurping the roles of sister, wife, mother and muse. There’s a hint of demonic sulphur to the story, though it’s pleasingly unclear whether Wunmi is possessing and exploiting the family or vice versa.

Maynard Eziashi and Donna Berlin (Marc Brenner)
Maynard Eziashi and Donna Berlin (Marc Brenner)

But then the arguments come clunking in, about patriarchy, assimilation and betrayal. The family start quoting statistics at each other: about how the NHS fails black mothers, or how a black baby’s chance of adoption declines with each passing year. Bayo and Amina are turned into well-rounded characters by Simon Manyonda and Mercy Ojelade but I didn’t believe a word of their paper-thin professional backstories. The deliberate ambiguity of the script compels Segun and Tiwa’s personalities to change at the drop of a teacup. This leads to some striking moments but renders them unconvincing overall.

The activism of Toyin Ayedun-Alase’s febrile Wunmi is vague and abstract, and she, too shifts from placidity to outrage from narrative necessity rather than conviction. Gloria Obianyo gives a sublime performance of muted snark as Ore and is persuasive as a medic burned out before she’s properly qualified: but even this character is given to sod-the-Tories, Boris-is-a-bastard sloganeering. I don’t necessarily disagree with such sentiments: I just don’t need characters shouting them at me from the stage. Designer Paul Wills puts the family in a literal glass house, and ensures, equally literally, that there is no smoke without fire.

Baruwa-Etti has had four plays staged in the last two years and the three seen in London have been crunchy, uneven and intriguing. This play, though a significant addition to his oeuvre, could definitely have benefited from a little more time and finessing.

Almeida Theatre, to October 1, almeida.co.uk