Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars, directed by Nadia Fall, had me gripped from the start.
As the house lights went down and the curtain ascended, the stage was suddenly filled with strobe lights, sporadically illuminating the figure of Femi (Kibong Tanji) as she stood centre stage, back arched, almost like she was being possessed by an external force. As the strobe lighting petered out, Peter McKintosh’s set, which resembled an enlarged cardboard box with crucifix-shaped windows on its sides, was revealed.
Baruwa-Etti’s opening lines are arresting: “What do you do when you see a man at the edge of your bed at midnight?”
As the one-woman play – in which Tanji effortlessly transitions from playing the respective characters of the narrative – Femi reveals to us that her twin brother, Seun, has recently been murdered in a racially motivated attack: a group of white men at a bar saw Seun with his white girlfriend and beat him up. Over the course of the play, we see Femi struggling to process her grief, attending the court hearing of Seun’s case, battling with the desire to wreak revenge on her brother’s attackers, and gradually losing her grip on reality as she distances herself from her friends.
Baruwa-Etti’s script effortlessly transitions from the respective locations of the narrative: from Femi’s flat to the courtroom, to the club, to the supermarket where Femi works, to the seaside. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design and Tingying Dong’s sound design effectively evoke these locations with lighting changes and soundscapes. I particularly enjoyed the choice to play DJ Snake’s Taki Taki and Mary J Blige’s Family Affair in the club scenes; as well as the screech of fireworks that accompanied Femi breaking into the home of one of the attacker’s parents. I also found Fenwick’s lighting design in the final moments of the play, with a panorama of stars filling the stage and spilling out into the auditorium, absolutely magical.
From the start, Tanji’s performance was absolutely virtuosic. Tanji excellently conveyed the grief of Femi: there was a particularly astounding moment where she met her friends at the supermarket and, within the same beat, presented a hard and unfeeling exterior to her friends, then privately revealed a vulnerability to the audience, explaining that she did actually sympathise with her ex-best friend turning to self-harm. While Tanji powerfully conveyed Femi’s anger – a particularly notable scene being when she manically stabbed the living room sofa to club music – by the end of the play, she also sensitively portrayed Femi’s eventual journey to finding peace. The nature of this peace is effectively left ambiguous for the audience to determine, as Femi walks off into the star-studded sky.
Tanji’s musical theatre training was also clear. There were several moments in which she showcased her strength as a dancer: balancing in awkward positions on the single chair occupying the stage and planking for a good couple of minutes as she performed pushing her friend threateningly against a gate. In all such moments, Tanji effortlessly maintained her breath control, still speaking with the same power and authority so integral to Femi’s character. Another impressive moment was halfway through the play when, after seemingly being out of breath after performing running from the police, she suddenly snapped into the character of Seun and began singing Earth, Wind & Fire’s Boogie Wonderland in a smooth and powerful singing voice.
In itself, Baruwa-Etti’s script is excellent: punchy and poetic, and incisive in its exploration of what justice really means. Dannielle ‘Rhymes’ Lecointe’s movement direction, in combination with the sound and lighting design, effectively marks the tonal changes and swift character transitions that Tanji negotiates with ease. Meanwhile, under Fall’s direction, the key themes of the play really come to the surface: I particularly enjoyed the use of lighting so that Tanji’s shadow appeared to be the menacing figure of her brother’s ghost, which highlighted the intrinsic connection between these twins, therefore explaining why Femi is so devastated by her brother’s death.
In summation, there is not an element of Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars that I could fault. I thoroughly enjoyed it and encourage you to buy a ticket if you haven’t done so already. Baruwa-Etti is a talented young writer, only at the beginning of his career, and I look forward to seeing the work he produces in the future…
The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars runs at Stratford Royal East until Saturday June 21st 2021. Find out more and book your tickets here.