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Sleepova at the Bush Theatre review: you can’t help but fall in love with this joyous, exuberant show

Amber Grappy (Rey), Aliyah Odoffin (Shan), Bukky Bukray (Funmi) and Shayde Sinclair (Elle) in Sleepova (Helen Murray)
Amber Grappy (Rey), Aliyah Odoffin (Shan), Bukky Bukray (Funmi) and Shayde Sinclair (Elle) in Sleepova (Helen Murray)

Four Millennial London black girls navigate grown-up problems between the ages of 16 and 18 in this completely delightful show. Illness, bereavement, exams, sexuality and romantic disappointment swirl through the mix before the quartet pledge undying loyalty and look forward – crushing irony alert! – to a better life in 2019.

Though attention has focused on the casting of Bukky Bakray, breakout star of the 2019 film Rocks, Sleepova is an ensemble piece driven by a strong script that feels improvised but is the work of Matilda Feyiá¹£ayọ Ibini. Using authentic slang studded with Yoruba phrases, Caribbean inflections and pop culture references, and acknowledging the centrality of mobile phones to contemporary life, it feels fresh and real in a way that most plays simply don’t.

We first see the four – friends from childhood at an East London Catholic school – at the sleepover arranged for the 16th birthday of Shan (Aliyah Odoffin), who has sickle cell disease. Mixed heritage Rey (Amber Grappy), whose father and stepmother are both white, is the most seemingly mature, and exuberantly queer. Funmi (Bakray) is most in touch with her Nigerian heritage, while Elle (Shayde Sinclair) is devoutly Christian. Both of them perve over Shan’s brother Solomon, though. “I’d be all over him like Christ’s love for mankind,” blurts Elle – the moment I fell in love with the show.

Amber Grappy (Rey), Shayde Sinclair (Elle) in Sleepova (Helen Murray)
Amber Grappy (Rey), Shayde Sinclair (Elle) in Sleepova (Helen Murray)

The four josh, squabble, boast and compete, and have half-fascinated, half-horrified conversations about sex, on a set by Cara Evans that aptly resembles a conversation pit. The casual detailing and the absolute refusal to take the obvious route, in both script and performances, is superb. Shan’s illness is an influence on her multifaceted personality rather than a defining trait: the relationship each character has with their parents is nuanced and refreshingly affectionate.

When Shan breaks their pact to all go to the prom together, after a lad invites her, Funmi quickly calculates he is the “sixth peng-est boy” they know. That much-anticipated party prompts a flashpoint. But again, moments of extreme hurt and confusion coexist with the everyday. Just like in real life.

Bakray proves a captivatingly subtle presence on stage but is absolutely matched by her co-stars. She, Grappy and Sinclair are all making their stage debuts here: Odoffin has done precisely one play before (Clybourne Park at the Park Theatre last year: she was great). Sinclair is still at drama school. Director Jade Lewis also seems to be a relative newcomer, which makes the naturalness and completeness of the world she builds with the cast all the more extraordinary.

Shayde Sinclair (Elle), Amber Grappy (Rey), Bukky Bukray (Funmi) and Aliyah Odoffin (Shan) in Sleepova (Helen Murray)
Shayde Sinclair (Elle), Amber Grappy (Rey), Bukky Bukray (Funmi) and Aliyah Odoffin (Shan) in Sleepova (Helen Murray)

Every performance of Sleepova is presented in a “relaxed environment”: audience members are invited to come and go, and respond to the show however they wish, within respectful bounds (i.e. phones off). Opening night was a blast, full of whoops and laughs and shouts of “OH NO!” at one hilarious reveal.

The role that Theatre 503 and the now-lost Bunker Theatre played in developing Ibini’s talent should be saluted, but the Bush feels like the only major London theatre where a play and a production like this could happen. That should give producing houses of comparable or greater influence pause for thought .

Bush Theatre, to April 8; buy tickets here