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Inua Ellams tells a personal and urgent story in 'An Evening With an Immigrant'

Inua Ellams in An Evening With an Immigrant
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Saturday, 26 September, 2020, 14:14
Review by: 
Ava Wong Davies

Poet and playwright Inua Ellams cuts an initially unassuming figure — simply dressed in Converse and a t-shirt, perched on a high stool, clutching a notebook and speaking into a microphone, An Evening With An Immigrant is a self-consciously low-key production — really, more of a poetry reading than a piece of theatre. There’s nothing flashy about it — just a writer and his words. It’s testament to Ellams’s extraordinary talent that this autobiographical show is as engrossing as it is. 

Tracking his life thus far, Ellams describes himself from the start as “always in flux” — his horoscope on the cusp of both Scorpio and Libra, his mother Christian and his father Muslim, he gently lays the groundwork for an existential crisis later hardened and entrenched by draconian UK immigration laws and the psychological toll of constantly moving home as a child. Tales of his childhood in Nigeria are sunnily charming: a born troublemaker (hospital natal equipment didn’t pick up his heartbeat in his mother’s womb until two weeks before he was born, he recounts with a gleam), stories of his boarding school friendships and feuds have an irrepressible warmth to them. 

There is a subtle, if undeniable shift once his family moves to the UK — forced to flee Nigeria due to religious fundamentalism and threats of violence, his family begin the immigration process, an agonising, dehumanising process which in the end will take over ten years. Conned by lawyers, his family are forced to move to Dublin for three years, before returning (once again, under threat of violence) to London. Ellams describes himself as being unaware of racism until it is explained to him by a white friend, and the utterly dehumanising way in which his family were constantly displaced.

The text feels flintier here, a little colder in comparison to the glow of the earlier sections, and yet there are still pockets of childlike joy to be found — particularly in the basketball friends Ellams makes in Dublin — these become, however, fewer and farther between. His childhood and adolescence are an unintentional odyssey through various cities and countries, each sketched with genuine affection, but all underscored by a sense of abject sadness and confusion. Later, when he speaks of being invited to Buckingham Palace whilst appealing deportation, and of opening Three Sisters at the National Theatre just as he is denied British citizenship, the absurdity is run through with a hardened seam of fury. 

Ellams’s text is filled with small images of jewel-like beauty — the little blue pens from Argos he stole as a teenager so that he might be able to write poetry; the fragrant, midnight headiness of a first date; the horizontal wind lashing against a tent at Glastonbury as he attempted a poetry reading. Like his poetry, An Evening With an Immigrant is rarely florid, but wears its lyricism and musicality lightly, letting it ripple into every corner of the theatre, aided by Sid Mercutio’s laid-back sound design. The cumulative power of the performance almost sneaks up on you — so charismatic and conversational is Ellams’s stage presence that when the final few minutes come, their polemical power is akin to a tidal wave.

An Evening With an Immigrant is running at The Bridge Theatre through 15 October. 

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