Sleepova, Bush Theatre
Friday 3rd March 2023
Is anyone still nostalgic about their teen years? The coming-of-age drama is a staple of contemporary British theatre, but surely there is something just a bit too predictable about stories where youngsters confront obstacles, overcome them and then find themselves in a better place. Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini’s new play, Sleepova, which is at the Bush Theatre, invites us into the personal spaces of four black teens, and then shows us what happens to them and to their friendship over the course of a couple of years.
The story begins in 2016 with Shan, who suffers from sickle cell disease, celebrating her 16th birthday with her besties Funmi, Elle and Rey. It’s their first sleepover, and they are tremendously excited, despite the fact that reality — in the shape of Elle’s strict parents who insist on picking her up at midnight — puts a certain damper on their exuberance. But before this deadline, they have plenty of space to dance, sing, eat popcorn and mess around, while affirming their love for one another. Both joyous and a touch gossipy, this is a great start to the evening.
The play is a sustained character study: as well as Shan, who is acutely conscious of her health and her family’s limited means, there is the confident Rey, of mixed heritage, and whose rich father and stepmother are both white. While she is openly and happily queer, the other two are less overtly demonstrative. Funmi is of Nigerian heritage, and interested in Yoruba culture, while Elle is religious and comes from a strongly, almost obsessively, devout Christian background. She’s brought her laptop so the girls can watch a movie — and there’s a fun passage as Rey introduces them to The Exorcist by telling them that “it’s about a mother struggling with her sick child”.
None of the kids are a stereotype, each is a distinctly individual person. At first, over several sleepovers, they just chat and squabble, but gradually some stronger themes emerge. At the school prom, which is one highlight of their year, Shan is attracted to a boy, and is suddenly less interested in hanging out with her girlfriends, while Elle discovers an unexpected sexual attraction to another girl. The representation of queerness and same-sex attraction is nuanced and convincing, with a stress on the repressive role of Christianity and the distressing use of aversion therapy. Likewise, a sudden death affects all four girls, and loyalties are tested as each responds in a different way.
Ibini’s writing is extremely empathetic, and she carefully develops the characters of her four protagonists. The scenes are an effervescent mixture of good jokes, goofy comments and pop culture references. There’s an innocent energy and vitality about the dialogues, although the play’s structure is a bit lame, with the plot — despite some unexpected incidents — lacking dramatic punch. There’s an inescapable predictability in the storytelling. And, like teenage life, the piece is both messy and confused, both serious and hilarious. Some themes could have been developed in greater depth, but that would mean a much less brightly fun experience.
Although other family members, from parents to siblings, are kept firmly offstage, they do influence the lives of our teens. Not only is the studious Elle heavily influenced by her mother, whose puritanical views have affected her whole personality, but also Rey, despite her vivacious personality, is at war with her stepmother, and suffers the trauma of losing her birth mother when she was two years old. Similarly, Shan has an absent father, who never remembers her birthday, and Funmi feels that she needs to know more about her parents’ Nigerian background. Being young black girls in London also gives them a powerful bond — although they don’t talk much about racism they know that life can be unfair.
As directed by Jade Lewis, on Cara Evans’s set, which is a colourful pastel-hued pit, Sleepova is a show that alternates between poignant moments and laugh-out-loud one-liners, while building up a picture of black teenage life. The super ensemble cast is led by Bukky Bakray (as the well-organised Funmi), who is the biggest name because of her film debut in Rocks in 2019, and also includes Aliyah Odoffin (Shan), Shayde Sinclair (Elle), and Amber Grappy (Rey). All apart from Odoffin are making their stage debuts. All are great to watch. And, despite its shortcomings as a drama, this is a beautifully vigorous, life-affirming show, which invites you to have a good time. Accept the invitation.
This review first appeared on The Theatre Times