Reviews EdinburghNationalReviews Published 15 August 2016

Review: Expensive Shit at Traverse

Traverse Theatre ⋄ 4th - 28th August 2016

The other side of the mirror: Chris White reviews Adura Onashile’s new play about corruption and freedom.

Chris White
Expensive Shit at Traverse. Photo: Sally Jupp.

Expensive Shit at Traverse. Photo: Sally Jupp.

Adura Onashile’s new play is an unflinching piece about corruption, subjugation, freedom, power – and all the struggles that lie between. Brought to life with razor-sharp staging and four explosive performers, this is a show worth seeing.

We flit between two toilets. One in a nightclub in Britain; the other is Kalakuta, a commune and independent state in Nigeria founded in defiance against the corruption of the government. Here, in Africa, four women are practising a dance to the jubilant music of Fela Kuti. One of the women is Tolu.

The play cuts between Kalakuta and a nightclub loo somewhere in the UK. Tolu is now a toilet attendant, trying to make friendly conversation with the not-so-friendly club-goers, who chuck her a quid intermittently, tell her to get lost and sometimes forget to flush.

Very quickly Onashile starts subverting our expectations. Everything isn’t quite as it seems. The women bicker and squabble over their routine, and over who should have the solos or do which moves. But Tolu knows they are not just dancing for fun; they’re dancing for freedom. And not just some metaphorical freedom, but actual freedom, because if they’re good they might get noticed and then they can get out and get money and empowerment. They can escape the oppression and the fear which is all around them.

Back in the nightclub Tolu is a party to a different type of corruption. There are men behind the mirrors in the bathroom. Tolu knows the men are there, and knows what they do, and they pay her to help them. She encourages the women to leave the doors open as they piss. She gets them to pull their tops down. She does whatever the men behind the mirrors tell her to. She’s been broken – somewhere along the way between the Kalakuta Republic and this dingy nightclub her spirit has been dampened, and she’s almost given in. Sabina Cameron gives an awe-inspiring performance as Tolu; juggling between the then and now, switching between weighty soliloquies full of dry, dark humour and powerful, rousing speeches in Kalakuta.

The three other women – Teri Ann Bobb Baxter, Jamie Marie Leary and Diana Yekkini – are affecting in their flitting between two characters each. The individuals they play are left unnamed, but each is richly and explicitly defined. Leary, in particular, is heart-breaking as the young woman in the dance troupe who’s expected to go to bed with one of the men. The injustice and the tragedy of that moment is a pivotal one in the play.

One thing that could be more clearly defined throughout is the presence of these ‘men behind the mirrors’. Karen Tennent’s set design places the audience in the seat of these men. The fourth wall becomes a two-way mirror (which, I suppose, it always is) and the audience are turned into voyeurs. But the implications that this has, the impact of the staging, and the relationship between the text and audience is one which could be explored further.

It’s also not always clear how Tolu feels about these men, or what the effects will be when she exposes and defies them. How is it that she gets caught up in this corruption that she so clearly despises? I suppose the obvious answer is that it gives her a small sense of power. Power – she tells the men behind the glass – is what you have. And Tolu wants power – not because of the things that have happened to her, or the things that she’s seen – but in spite of them. Tolu wants power through peace, through equality, through understanding, and her final speech is so rousing and moving that you really understand this desperate, human need.

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Chris White is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Expensive Shit at Traverse Show Info


Directed by Adura Onashile

Written by Adura Onashile

Cast includes Sabina Cameron, Terri Ann Bobb Baxter, Jamie Marie Leary, Diana Yekinni

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