'The Clinic' review — an invigorating play connects the political and personal with ease

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Dipo Baruwa-Etti has been busy of late, the 27-year-old British-Nigerian writer penning plays arriving in seemingly quick succession each of which packs a different surprise punch. The Clinic, at the Almeida Theatre, immediately catches one unawares in telling of a successful Black couple in London who just happen to be Tories – yes, that too can happen! — and the fractious household over which they come to preside.

Paul Wills’ elegant, elevated set shows the sort of spotless, state-of-the-art kitchen one might find in a showroom, only for the space to make room for encounters that get increasingly messy.

Tiwa (Donna Berlin), the glamorous, gentle-seeming matriarch, brews mysteriously potent tea to which the recipe is closely guarded. More to the point, she regards her home as a “clinic” of sorts that offers a safe space to the damaged Wunmi (Toyin Ayedun-Alase), who finds herself newly widowed and raising a baby boy on her own.

That refuge, in fact, turns out to be mighty rancorous. Tiwa and her therapist-husband Segun (Maynard Eziashi) have a son, Bayo (a bespectacled Simon Manyonda), who is a policeman, so employed in the very profession which the volatile Wunmi regards as the enemy.

Bayo’s wife, Amina (Mercy Ojelade), is a Labour MP keen herself to be a mother, whilst his sister Ore (Gloria Obianyo) is a confirmed cynic embarked on a career as a doctor: her bedside manner, one gleans, might need some work.

The first thing we witness is a Nigella Lawson recipe being burnt, and images of fire and conflagration start to consume a narrative that is incendiary well before flames are seen licking the back wall late on. Prior to that, one notes a mask on prominent view to one side of the stage that itself gleams from within.

Not to be outdone, Tiya’s intoxicating brew gets described as “electric”, and Matt Haskins’ lighting sizzles spasmodically in keeping with the highly charged cross-currents of emotion that course through the play.

It’s probably best not to reveal too many of the twists of a fantastically compelling plot that keeps you on edge — and prompted numerous gasps along the way from a wonderfully vocal and alive opening night audience. Suffice it to say that Wunmi upends the very household which she is seen so warily entering in a play that explores racial, sexual, and political identity while always foregrounding the individuals tasked with embodying these potential abstractions.

Admittedly, there are times when the accretion of bile is such that you slightly wonder what all these people are doing under the same roof, and a crucial plot development has to be taken on faith — narratively invigorating though it absolutely is. But the performances are so accomplished, and Monique Touko’s production so astute, that one’s moment-to-moment experience of the play tends to sweep all cavils aside: Touko should be very proud of her achievement here.

And as his Yard Theatre play An unfinished man showed earlier this year, Baruwa-Etti has a real knack for a heightened realism that is capable of lifting off into the supernatural at any time.

In context, I’d love to have seen performed a final scene that exists in the playtext of The Clinic but didn’t make the final cut in performance. As it is, the ending, explosive though it may be, packs a lot into very little time, and that additional scene on the page involving Wunmi and Ore might have given the rapid-fire sequence of events (and revealed coincidences) time to breathe.

Still, the cast look as if they’re having a field day subverting audience expectations and riding the wave of that seemingly rare play that conjoins the political and the personal with ease: you understand the polarities on view and the circumstances that have led each character to different, and decisive, points on the spectrum of opinion.

All the performances are first-rate: Eziashi’s faintly smug Segun, whose birthday starts the play, softens or at least evolves when a newcomer enters his midst, just as Berlin’s patient wife knows just when and how to let rip.

Obianyo’s gait speaks volumes about Ore’s overall disregard for a world she seems to hold at arm’s length, even as Manyonda (ever-likeable) and Ojelade lay bare a couple all but done in to varying degrees by the life’s abrasions. Amina, indeed, speaks volubly about labouring under the weight of the Labour Party during an age top-heavy with Tories.

Handed perhaps the most challenging role, Ayedun-Alase morphs from bereaved sceptic through to unanticipated sex bomb, her ongoing fury at the cards life has dealt her unwavering even as her attitude towards her newfound shelter of sorts begins to swerve. The Clinic may not be the tidiest play you’ve ever seen but, among the current spate of early-autumn openings, it is easily the most entertaining.

The Clinic is at the Almeida Theatre through 1 October.

Photo credit: Mercy Ojelade, Gloria Obianyo, Maynard Eziashi, Donna Berlin, Simon Manyonda in The Clinic (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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