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Theatre Review: House of Ife sees a star being born

Newcomer Michael Workeye dominates this superbly written, but often intensely painful piece

Yohanna Ephrem and Michael Workeye star in Beru Tessema’s House of Ife (Photo: Mark Brenner)

House of Ife
Bush, London, until June 11

Beru Tessema’s House of Ife – about a dysfunctional family coming to terms
with the death of the eldest son – is in essence a very traditional drama. The
first-time playwright treads in the footsteps of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, among others, in examining the human capacity for misery.

The twist in his superbly written, but often intensely painful piece is that this time around the family is British-Ethiopian. Ife – the son who has died – is never seen, but it’s hinted he might have been gay, his relationship with his supposedly God-fearing father was abusive and he turned to drugs as his escape route.

The family live on the ground floor of a London tower block where they can’t fully open the windows during a swelteringly hot summer as they’ve been designed to stop suicide attempts in the flats above. When Jude Akuwudike’s flawed and calculating patriarch finally shows up from Ethiopia – too late for his son’s funeral – it’s clear a cultural, if not also a moral, divide has opened up between him and his family.

In Lynette Linton’s assured production, the characters transcend race and circumstances: there’s also the strong, long-suffering matriarch in Sarah Priddy’s Merion; the daughters in Karla-Simone Spence’s Aida and Johanna Ephrem’s Tsion, just trying to rise above the tragedy; and in Michael Workeye’s Yosi, the tormented surviving son carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

It’s an unusually strong ensemble, but Workeye – just out of drama school – still manages to dominate the proceedings. He has a naturalistic style of acting – and a charisma – that reminded me of a youthful Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

He doesn’t have to say anything as his ghastly father holds forth at the dining
table. It’s clear his life was hell trying to cope with his late, unlamented brother. It’s an extraordinary thing when an actor can say so much about what’s going on inside him without having to utter so much as a single word.

I saw it with two actors – always the toughest judges of each other’s work – and at the end I asked them if I was right in thinking that I’d just seen a star being born. Happily, they both concurred.

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