Oliva Tweest, Hackney Empire
What a difference two decades makes. As a teenager in London in the 90s, pop music reigned in my school with the Spice Girls and Take That. At our parties, RnB and hip hop from the US rocked the joint –SWV, Brandy, and Guy. My parents’ Nigerian music was conk: the classically accepted highlife tune of Sweet Mother by Nigerian and Cameroonian singer Prince Nico Mbarga and his band Rocafil Jazz rallied a cry on the dance floor. But there was no way we acknowledged our Nigerian heritage amongst our peers – it wasn’t cool to be "African". The vibe is so different for today’s teenagers: pop into any party and it is Afrobeat by P Square, Wizkid, and Fuse ODG that reigns – and dance routines like Azonto is a viral global phenomenon. RnB has been kicked to the kerb.
Playwright Nana Duncan’s comedic writing is earnest as she captures the voices of different generations and values.
Based on the 2011 UK hit song by D’Banj called Oliver Twist, an Afrobeat musical fusing a collage of some the most recent hits is a cool concept and is delivered with great enthusiasm and verve by this young, energetic cast. Despite living at home under his domineering mother Funke’s (Joy Mbakwe) thumb, Tobi (Tolulope ‘T-boy’ Ogunmefun) is a promiscuous young man who sneaks in girls into the family home and hangs out with his “useless” friends whose prostration greetings don’t impress her. It is when Tobi falls for Testimony (Vicky Sola), a singer in the Koko club he prowls that things become complicated as she is not what she seems.
Playwright Nana Duncan’s comedic writing is earnest as she captures the voices of different generations and values negotiating their respective boundaries. Particular Nigerian mannerisms feel so familiar and Mbakwe is hilarious as Funke with acidic putdowns. One of the funniest scenes is the congregation’s gathering in the church and the usher’s search for donations: everyone’s face and body language changes with each successive approach. Dancing from Kurtis Agyekum who played Tobi’s friend Kevin was outstanding: he can beat Miley in a twerk off and smashes any stereotype that large people don’t have any riddim.
Considering their connection is the lynchpin of the show, the main criticism is that Tobi and Testimony lack depth and chemistry, making it hard to root for them. And the role of the narrator, akin to the mechanism of a Greek chorus, seems obsolete. The songs are crammed in back to back, which prevents emotion from building and resonating with the audience and at some points becomes incredibly irritating.
When it ran in 2013, Oliva Tweest brought a new demographic to the theatre. And in reading the bios of the cast, it is clear that they are multi-talented with a serious hustle going on. Old fogies better watch out.
Info: Oliva Tweest was at Hackney Empire on 6-7 September 2014.