Rising star playwright Dipo Baruwa-Etti had a terrific play at the Edinburgh Fringe this year called ‘Half-Empty Glasses’, a compact three-hander which deftly lionised and problematised a young Black activist with a mounting messiah complex.
His Almeida debut ‘The Clinic’ seems to be coming from something like the same place, concerning as it does the meeting point between Black activism and Black conservatism. But it’s pretty much a mess – albeit a frequently funny, thrilling one – that suggests Baruwa-Etti has a way to go before he really nails larger ensemble pieces.
It begins with a wealthy extended middle-class Nigerian-British family dancing their way smugly into Paul Wills’s fancy kitchen set in order to… be really horrible to each other. The occasion is the sixtieth birthday of smoothie patriarch Segun, and everyone is just awful. Segun’s wife Tiwa (Donna Berlin) declares it to be ‘disgusting’ when her Labour MP daughter-in-law Amina (Marcy Ojelade) asks their son Bayo (Simon Manyonda) to fetch her a scarf; their jaded lefty medical student daughter Ore (a deliciously acidic Gloria Obianyo), pours scorn over everyone and everything – notably suggesting Amina’s unborn child is quite likely to die. This is all served up naturalistically in Monique Touko’s production, and yet it seems jarringly unimaginable that these people would even have tried to be in a room together.
The plot proper kicks into gear when Ore tells her mum about Wunmi (Toyin Ayedun-Alase), the bereaved activist wife of a deceased patient of hers, now left with a young baby and suicidal thoughts. Tiwa suggests Wunmi come and stay with them before she makes up her mind to do anything drastic (‘the clinic’ is how she describes their home). Initially, Wumni is wary and hostile, especially when she discovers Tiwa and Segun are Tory voters and that Bayo works for the police. All of them seem blind – or willing to turn a blind eye – to structural racism in British society. But then Wunmi slowly becomes seduced by their bougie lifestyle, almost literally drinking the Kool-Aid as she seemingly becomes addicted to Tiwa’s special tea recipe.
If Baruwa-Etti could have left it there, or explored its potential as a slightly surreal satire, ’The Clinic’ might have really hit the spot: an incisive, slightly leftfield play about the intersection between class and race in modern Britain. But alas, the playwright can’t leave alone, and for all the sharpness in its depiction of the corrosiveness of privilege, ‘The Clinic’ gets a bit silly. Put simply, nobody seems to really believe in anything: almost every character’s tone shifts wildly, not least the endlessly changing Wunmi, who I think we’re meant to see as having strong core beliefs but who literally changes personality depending on who she’s talking to. Which could be meaningful in certain situations, but here reeks of sloppy characterisation and a particular difficulty in creating credible interactions.
Although Touko’s production seems to end in a living evocation of the ‘this is fine’ meme – as the kitchen catches fire around the numbly oblivious cast – the play comes across as more blandly nihilistic than powerfully satirical. There’s so little integrity to any of the characters that it’s difficult to feel anything’s at stake when they do regrettable things: they’re all basically irredeemable. I guess this is in fact fine – as in, it’s basically pretty entertaining – but a couple of rewrites and a round or two with a dramaturg and it could have been so much more.