Benedict Lombe’s debut full-length okay ‘Lava’ begins with performer Ronke Adékoluejo wandering on casually and busting a few low-key moves to an Aretha Franklin cover. Then she starts a full-throttle, room-rousing routine – the sort of thing that would do serious numbers on TikTok – that leaves her gasping for breath at the end and establishes one thing right from the start: Ronke Adékoluejo is absolutely phenomenal.
She is the conduit for a play that’s exhilarating, amusing, angering and frustrating by turns. It hinges on a fascinating conceit. A Congolese British woman – called Her in the text, who we can assume to be a version of the Congolese British Lombe – is receiving a series of increasingly frustrated letters from the British passport office. She is attempting to renew her UK passport for the first time, but has run into problems: she is also a South African citizen, and her South African passport doesn’t feature a first name. The Brits want this corrected. So what’s the deal?
The answer provides a perfect jumping-off point for an exploration of the complicated and often bleakly absurd history of the country of Lombe’s birth, the present-day Congo, and how the actions of colonial European incursions echo and clang down through history. ‘Lava’ is a mercurial work, loosely autobiographical in appearance (we’re never told it’s a true story), that traces Her story, from childhood chats with her mother, to pre-recorded dialogues with smug white people asking Lombe terrible, patronising questions after her family moved to Ireland then England. There are some very good jokes in it, notably the observation that Congo has ‘had more names than P Diddy’. But ultimately it’s a serious piece: the lava of the title is the bubbling frustration of the Black experience of life in the West, of being constantly othered and having the trauma of colonialism constantly discounted.
Anthony Simpson-Pike’s kinetic production often feels more like a freeform poetic eruption than a sculpted piece of drama. The story about the passport is good as a starting point for other stuff, but it ends up feeling like a bit of a weak framing device that wraps up surprisingly meekly. And there’s a lot of bouncing around: a section towards the end in which Lombe responds to an insensitive three-star review in The Times is fair enough, but it feels somewhat random, given ‘Lava’ has hitherto been a bit coy about presenting itself as a straight autobiography of its writer.
But Adékoluejo is such a titanic presence she sort of irons out the kinks by charisma alone, blitzing through it all with a radiant, room-filling self-assuredness, effortlessly turning on sixpence as she switches from affable mateyness to flashing fury to an amusing impression of Her mum. And while it’s not a play liable to ever stop feeling relevant, ‘Lava’ hits home extra hard in a week in which the right of Black English football players to acknowledge they face racism has somehow, shockingly, become a matter of national debate.