This review contains spoilers.

Produced by Unleash the Llama, Joey Akubeze (Cruella; The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself) stars in this gripping and frenetic one-man show about the extraordinary life of Augustus Boyle Chamberlayne Merriman‐Labor (1877-1919), a Sierra Leone born barrister and satirist. Merriman-Labor is best known for his 1909 book, Britons Through Negro Spectacles, which satirised ill-informed ‘Africa experts’.

Eloki Obi and Saul Boyer’s writing is crisp and full of wry humour; something that Akubeze seems to relish in its most camp, unhinged and theatrical moments. What defines the play, though, is the continual shift between Merriman-Labor and Dumebi, the play’s putative British-Nigerian performer, who has taken it upon himself to tell Merriman-Labor’s story on stage as a “personal act of bereavement therapy”, in homage to his recently deceased partner, Alfred.

This metatheatrical device, handled with disarming ease and realism by Akubeze, poses a potent question about what may or may not have changed for gay black Britons over the past century.

With a play that is part bioplay and part metatheatrical meditation on how artistic creation can provide solace in times of grief, this is an huge amount to cover in such a short time, and with only one performer. Whirling, all-encompassing soundscapes and inventive lighting design help us to transition between the two worlds. This ambitious production will stay with you long after you leave Waterloo’s underground railway arches.

Playing at VAULT Festival 28 February – 5 March 2023.

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