Pros: A surprisingly entertaining, hugely enjoyable, dynamic monologue with well developed characters that has a lot more to say about brotherly love, religious conflict and modern slavery than anything about black T-shirts…
Cons: Monologues aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this is a masterclass in the genre.
Black T-shirt Collection as a monologue? I must confess the idea sounded nuts from the very beginning. Let’s face it, monologues are difficult territory in theatre… and a black T-shirt collection really didn’t sound like a particularly thrilling topic to go on about for 90 minutes. So, it does help if the guy on stage knows a thing or two about playwrighting and performing. It also helps if he is supported by a team of award-winning directors, set, sound and light designers of National Theatre fame, eager to get familiar with their new creation before heading all the way up north to claim a piece of fame at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The result is this brilliant piece of writing and a surprisingly engaging story, narrated with confidence and vibrancy by Inua Ellams. The audience find themselves immersed in a dark (and increasingly hot and sticky) room, and wondering what is Ellams doing, carrying a box around? Soon enough, he becomes Matthew, a Christian Nigerian fostered by a Muslim family in the remote Northern regions of the African country. He’s a gifted artist who made a fortune designing black T-shirts, in partnership with his Muslim foster brother Muhammed, who seems to be as much a sensitive soul as the business savvy leg of the duo. As we follow Ellams in their journey, he takes us back and forth in time, telling us of a childhood playing in the tropical mud, of religious diversity, of happiness and bullying. He tells of ever-growing societal tensions in the region, of being gay and black and Muslim and of fleeing home with just a box of ideas, to pursue a dream, to pursue freedom. And my mind wondered with them to Cairo, then London, Milan, Madrid and all the way to China, moving me all the way along until the bitter ending. I’m not going to narrate the rest as I don’t want to put up a spoiler alert, but I can tell you that Inua-Matthew and Inua-Muhammed seem to have very different accents and personalities and I sometimes wondered whether this guy really was alone on stage (I shouldn’t have had that second beer but hey, it was really hot and crowded in there.)
The set design was simple but fitting, as black as the T-shirts were. The audio and visuals superbly directed and certainly playing a big part in this monologue’s entertainment factor. Some may be critical of Inua’s soft tones and somehow heavy African accent. However, his speech was very clear to my ears and I thought his ability to raise up when it mattered was well timed and always engaging. He got my attention pretty much full on and judging from the happy clapping crowd at the end of the show, I definitely wasn’t alone there.
Black T-Shirt collection only performed two nights in London but you can catch the whole collection at Pleasance in Edinburgh, from the 19th to the 24th August. Go get a train, I heard they do a mean Angus Steak over there…
Author: Inua Ellams
Director: Thierry Lawson
Box Office: 0131 556 6550
Booking Link: http://www.pleasance.co.uk/edinburgh/events/black-t-shirt-collection
Booking Until: 24th August 2013