Soho Theatre, London (****)

© Creative Nation, Yvette  Boakye (Ruhab)

© Creative Nation, Yvette Boakye (Ruhab)

Theresa Ikoko’s debut play has already been lauded, first at the HighTide Festival where it launched this year but even before that, awarded the Alfred Fagon (2015) and George Devine (2016) awards.

It’s not difficult to see why. Despite certain language obstacles (for these ears), Ikoko’s imaginative account of the lives of young girls and women in present day Africa under threat of kidnap and forced marriage proves moving, taut and revelatory in the way she gets inside the minds of young girls experiencing the most severe attack on their sense of themselves and their friendship.

Part of its powerful effect also comes from director Elayce Ismail’s shuddering production amplifying Ikoko’s text and forcing within the confines of Rosanna Vize’s claustrophobic, figurative set, a sense of enclosing gloom from forest, encampment and finally outside bombardment.

But most of all it comes from the playing of Anita-Joy Uwajeh, Yvette Boakye and Abiola Ogunbiyi as three friends from the same village who suddenly find themselves first as runaways, then hostages when their villages are attacked and burned down by Islamic marauders.

© Creative Nation, (left to right): Abiola Ogunbiyi (Tisana), Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Haleema), Yvette Boakye (Ruhab) , friends torn apart by circumstance and religion...

© Creative Nation, (left to right): Abiola Ogunbiyi (Tisana), Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Haleema), Yvette Boakye (Ruhab) , friends torn apart by circumstance and religion…

Perfunctory talk of sex and normal schoolgirl adolescent chit-chat gradually gives way to terror and Ikoko shows with impressive tact their individual responses to trying to stay alive. For Uwajeh’s no nonsense Haleema, her eyes are set on escape: for Boakye’s Ruhab, survival lies in accommodation and even marriage to one of her captors; whilst for the youngest and least mature of the trio, Ogunbiyi’s Tisana, escape lies in increasing withdrawal into a fantasy worlds of the past and tv soaps.

Personally, initially I found the accents difficult to negotiate and even after reading the script could see that it wasn’t so much in the playing but in Ikoko’s syntax and colloquialisms. But the performances and Ismail’s production overcome all resistance in seeing natural joy and ebullience and the friendship of the three being eroded by the experiences forced on them before their time and ultimately ending in tragedy.

© Creative Nation, foreground: Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Haleema), Yvette Boakye (Ruhab)

© Creative Nation, foreground: Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Haleema), Yvette Boakye (Ruhab)

Girls speaks not only to the specific story behind the kidnapping of the schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014 but the ongoing mayhem and destruction of lives in Yemen and the Middle East. A terrific piece that raises consciousness without fuss or bombast, it also marks the third transfer from this year’s HighTide Festival – a hallmark of their astute programming and dramaturgy. If Al Smith’s Harrogate – seen last year and about to land at London’s Royal Court (Oct 20-29) before touring – lives up to its original showing and the quality of this year’s HighTide `exports’, Pilgrims and now Girls, then the Festival really have hit the jackpot this year.

Girls runs at Soho Theatre to Oct 29, 2016

A new play by Theresa Ikoko

Haleema: Anita-Joy Uwajeh
Ruhab: Yvette Boakye
Tisana: Abiola Ogunbiyi 

Director: Elayce Ismail
Set and Costume Designer: Rosanna Vize
Lighting Designer: Andy Purves
Sound Designer: Richard Hammarton
Casting Director: Nadine Rennie CDG

Presented by HighTide, Soho Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company
First staged at HighTide Festival, Sept 10, 2016
First perf at Soho Theatre, Sept 27, 2016

Review first published on this site, Oct 5, 2016