Review: The 14th Tale

Project Arts Centre – Cube

Is that blood on Inua Ellams’s white T-shirt? Even though it looks suspiciously like red paint, the dark stain visible on the writer/performer’s clothes seems to foreshadow violence from the opening minutes.

In an hour-long piece, presented by the London-based Fuel theatre company, this playful performance poet teases the audience with his intricately laced monologue. A sequence of autobiographical sketches takes him from his Nigerian childhood to a London classroom, then to the streets of Dublin, circling back at intervals to a moment where he sits jumpily in a hospital emergency room, awaiting news.

All this is conjured by his words alone, with the only props a single hard-backed chair and a torch. Under Thierry Lawson’s restrained direction, Ellams’s narrative is fleshed out by his agile shimmying across the stage, while Michael Nabarro’s lighting design assists in demarcating locations and evoking mood. But the imagery comes from Ellams’s own words, sometimes rhyming, uttered in long, flowing phrases that curl back on themselves, building with rhythmic insistence, commanding our attention.

Having previously written poetry, Ellams made his stage debut, and his name, in 2009 with this piece, which toured in Britain, including a stint at the Royal National Theatre. Personal and tender, it is essentially a coming-of-age play. He makes glancing references to racism, but is not exploring it explicitly; nor are the themes of emigration and displacement addressed directly.

These form the backdrop to a narrative that focuses on his rebelliousness as a child and teenager, with an irrepressible disruptiveness inherited from his father and grandfather. Some of his pranks are comically harmless – provoking the wrath of a “hurricane of nuns” in Bible class or coating the bedclothes of a boarding-school enemy with toothpaste. His teenage behaviour – urinating against the school wall or playing basketball with mates on rooftops in Dublin – seems relatively tame.

What does shine through is a young man striving to be comfortable in his own skin, and, delving beneath that, the evolution of his relationship with his endlessly tolerant father. An age-old story then, of fathers and children, of reconciliation, of the confused search for love, but one that is expressed in new-minted language and with a winning simplicity.

Until Sunday

– Helen Meany

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