Just an ordinary lawyer
 

 

lawyer

Just an ordinary lawyer

Coventry Belgrade, B2

****

Tayo Aluko is a most agreeable performer. Here he has written, and performs solo, a stagework that to a degree falls into two parts.

It is a homage to Tunji Sowande, who left Nigeria in 1945 to study law in Britain and who in 1968 became the first black head of a major barrister’s chambers and finally the first (part-time) judge.

The first half hour dwells on his joy of cricket, a love which begins in his native Nigeria (he sings a Yoruba song later in the production, reminded of the death of his mother) and is intensified and redoubled when he comes to England and makes his way up the legal profession, via the Inner Temple, never losing his dedication to the game

But though he can muse on a cricket bat signed by Donald Bradman, not all is as positive as the fifth test, England v Australia, which he recalls from the Oval with such pleasure.

Rather, he focuses even this early on the growing resistance to the South African cricket team taking part in events abroad while apartheid, then headed by the odious right winger John Vorster, holds sway in that country.

So, this first section is part amiable narrative, fuelled by joyful anecdote and a passion for the willow bat, but also in part, keeps slipping back to a barbed criticism of Western initial indifference to the racial problem.

The tables, he reminds us, are turned when the British team seeks to visit South Africa in 1968-9 with Basil D’Oliveira (Cape coloured adopted Englishman) included: something Vorster virulently objected to. That tour was cancelled.

From time to time Aluko bursts into song; he has a charming, not overstated way of singing (‘Deep River’, ‘A bird in the sky’, and so on), an art his character, he tells us, has polished by singing around nursing homes both in London and across the country. It gives an indication of the generosity, and concern, of the character he paints.

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The second part, which to some extent follows from the first, though is also slightly disparate, is a kind of lightning journey round the unpleasantness of world history coinciding with these cricketing events. We are told, for instance, that by the late Sixties, Britain (which had handed over power in 1966) had ‘washed its hands’ of Nigeria.

We are given a whistle stop tour of the Soviet and American backed factions of Angola (the governing MLPA, Unita etc.), with Samora Machel, a much more successful and less factional leader of a post Portuguese mandate, Mozambique, thrown in.

We are reminded not just of American bitterness and violence, tainted above all by the death of Martin Luther King, but of Australia’s deprived and shamefully treated aborigines, and to a lesser extent New Zealand’s Maoris. He also applauds Peter Hain’s successful campaign in 1969 to prevent a 1970 South African MCC visit to Britain. 

And then we are back to positive cricket: memories; of Sir Learie Constantine, Garfield Sobers, true West Indian greats.

These subjects are precious to Tayo Aluko. He savours Paul Robeson as a noted and honourable symbol for black Africans: indeed his own previous play, Call Mr.Robeson’ won numerous awards. Black political resistance, West African history, and African prehistory figure in his CV. The present play premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, before moving on to America.

The truth is, this play is a bit of a medley. It packs in a lot of detail, and its intention is certainly, and admirably, didactic. Aluko wants us to know about these injustices, about a time not so long ago when wrongs were widespread and unwittingly we were ourselves partially guilty for those abuses, even brutalities.

That is perhaps the meaning of his title: we are all involved, and cannot take a back seat, wherever racism or maltreatment or cruelty surfaces. But the political detail, swirling around some of the audience who may not quite grasp it, falls a little apart from the cricketing message, even though the two are patently to a degree related.

If the text is just a fraction awry in that respect, the performance possibly lacks something too. There was a moment just near the end when Aluko sits down cross legged frontstage. And one thought, here is something new in the staging, something visually fresh: a new intimacy, and a good idea.

But it was a one off: most of the time he either sits midstage on a stylish barrister’s office chair or coasts around affably but to no particular direction or purpose: it all looks rather the same. One might term it rather mild.

Equally, there is (as I recall) just one telling moment when he raises his voice, quite dramatically, in righteous anger. The effect is strong, the audience is engaged, and one thinks, if only he had varied his voice, a whisper, a snarl, a pout, a growl, a nagging irritation, another burst of anger, this show might have had more of a dramatic, as opposed to purely verbal, impact.

Yet Aluko is a delightful speaker, an expressive personality who holds his audience in the palm of his hand and speaks his text particularly clearly. Not only is he lucid; he consistently communicates directly and attractively with the audience. When he condemns racial indifference and speaks up for common decency, he is touching and persuasive. Nobody could perceive him as anything other than passionate. And that is the positive side of his show. He makes us care about the things that he cares about, and the injustices that he berates. He is a teacher, and in that capacity, he is very good indeed.

 Roderic Dunnett

19-05-18 

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