Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s highly anticipated The Clinic opens with a picture-perfect portrait of a nuclear Black British middle-class family.
As the family gather to celebrate father Segun’s (Maynard Eziashi ) 60th birthday, cracks begin to show as daughter Ore (Gloria Obianyo) delivers biting remarks to her policeman brother Bayo ( Simon Manyonda) and Labour MP sister-in-law, Amina (Mercy Ojelade ). Fair Play’s Monique Touko shows her deftness in navigating pace here, guiding the family’s overlapping conversations, resonant for anyone who has grown up in a large Nigerian family.
This window into the life of a Black British family feels particularly timely given the discussion of representation politics within the new Conservative cabinet, and characters lament over ‘the Kwartengs and the Badenochs’, examples of Black British middle-class individuals who internalise tools of oppression and weaponise them against their own community. Indeed, Black people being complicit in structures of whiteness feels topical and choosing to question that at an institution like the Almeida, is a bold choice from Baruwa-Etti. The generational divide between Ore and her Tory-voting parents, who try to be indulgent of their daughter’s interest in activism, can be felt as they continue to watch the rest of their world from their marbled kitchen island, sleekly designed by Paul Wills.
The play’s first half whizzes past and at times, it feels like the scene is hastily set to make room for Wunmi’s entrance into the family home, which the play does well to anticipate. Baruwa-Etti is a talent, and he clearly thinks not just about entertaining an audience but also about provoking conversations, as seen in his melding of politics with poetry – the line ‘I continue to labour when I should be conserving my energy’ sticks out.
Cue the entrance of Wunmi (Toyin Ayedun-Alase), an activist with suicidal thoughts whom, under the instruction of her mother, is invited by Ore into their home, the eponymous ‘Clinic’. The idea of Wunmi becoming housewife Tiwa’s (played brilliantly by Donna Berlin) ‘project’ is fascinating, and here there are flashes of brilliance as Baruwa-Etti explores the class divide between the two characters.
The play’s poster seeks to establish the relationship and parallels between Wunmi and Ore: both are burnt-out healers – Ore, a junior doctor and Wumni, a community organiser. You can feel the desperation of Wunmi as she begs Ore to help her end her life. The possibility of friction between the two women is potent but never feels realised. Wunmi’s entrance into Ore’s family home should feel like a massive disruption or at least cause the play to spin on its axis, but instead as an audience member, I felt confused by the play’s lack of direction.
The muddling plot is bolstered, however, by the performances of an assured and talented cast, particularly Gloria Obianyo’s Ore. When Obianyo enters each scene, she holds her exasperation in her body: rolling eyes, a long drag of her cigarette, the sluggish removal of her coat as if she doesn’t want to be there in the first place. She is tired – tired from working long hospital shifts, tired of her family’s indifference, tired of being part of a system that fails to help the most vulnerable. Much to her parents’ disdain, she continues to light up her cigarettes, the only thing in her life that she can control. Indeed, fire is a big theme in this play but despite this fact, the play does not burn uncontrollably the way you want it to. Instead, the whole production feels measured in the same way Ore lights up her cigarettes, controllable and predictable. For all its smoke, we actually don’t ever find the fire.
For the early promise of The Clinic’s eerie horror elements – Matt Haskin’s crackling lights, a Peele-Esque brew that makes you forget all of your troubles, the menace does not follow through. Particularly as the play seeks to acknowledge the systems that grind Black people psychologically and physically, the most disappointing aspect of this production is its lack of tension and threat. The show attempts to pivot the external threat of a racist society on Black people, to the internal threat of Black people not supporting each other, but at times I was confused about who/what was in control, a concept that would have been quite interesting to unfurl and notably handled frustratingly well in Baruwa-Etti’s debut An unfinished man.
Although left unclear about the show’s overall commentary on activism and care in the Black community, one thing that is clear is Baruwa-Etti’s talent and he will continue to be a writer whose work I look out for in the future.
The Clinic runs until 1st October @ Almeida Theatre