In Theatre Royal Stratford East’s big reopening show, rising star Kibong Tanji gives a completely entrancing performance as Femi, a young woman sucked into a roiling vortex of anger and grief over the hate crime killing of her twin brother, Seun.
Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s monologue, which traces Femi’s fragile mental state throughout the duration of the trial of Seun’s killers is impassioned and poetic, charged with R&B bangers and soul classics in Nadia Fall’s punchy production.
It’s a solid debut play from Baruwa-Etti, and a springboard for a truly epic performance from Tanji. The actor prowls, hunches, raves, dances, sings, vibrates about the stage as Femi goes through an emotional free fall in the wake of Seun’s murder by a gang of white racists. She seems to be everywhere at once, swallowing the stage, devouring the space in her agony, magnified by Oliver Fenwick’s queasily claustrophobic lighting, picked out by the stark, crucifix-like slits of Peter McKintosh’s otherwise unadorned set.
It has the makings of a revenge tragedy: Femi sees her brother’s vengeful spirit and considers ever more drastic action to bring him justice. And yet ultimately it’s more internal than that - Femi does come close to doing something truly terrible, but ultimately she never steps into the abyss, just contemplates it. Does she really see a ghost? Here the sense of derangement from grief is so intense I doubted it - rather, she seems to be in such pain that her reality has ruptured, that she hallucinates.
Tanji’s powerhouse performance undoubtedly overshadows the play itself, which is blessed with tangy lyricism but is light on plot and a bit too heavy on familiar grief monologue beats. The writing might be slightly better suited to a quieter, more naturalistic production – the biblical intensity of Tanji’s performance steamrollers the words a bit. But ultimately, it’s a tradeoff worth making. Tanji is a name I’d been aware of since she understudied Arinze Kene’s wild ride autobiographical West End hit ‘Misty’ – a seemingly impossible task. I think she only gave a single official performance, which I missed, but it’s a joy to confirm that she lives up to all the hype.