Sleepova - Bush Theatre
The mighty power of black female friendships
Countless depictions of teenage, coming-of-age stories exist across media, each attempting to represent the ups and downs of growing up in parallel with your friends, but Matilda Feyisayo Ibini’s is one of the most authentic illustrations out there. Four friends, each with their own struggles, are standing on the precipice of adulthood and with the support of each other, they might just make it. Sleepova is a celebration of black female friendships and the monumental bond that growing up together can form.
Shan is turning sixteen and through a collective group effort of compromises and parental persuasion, the group are having their first-ever sleepover - well sort of, Elle’s dad is picking her up at midnight, best she could do. Rey has chosen a film on putlocker whilst Funmi passes around the popcorn as the girls settle in for an evening of adolescent gossip, banter and late night deep chats. Over the next two hours, we witness moments from the subsequent few years of these young women’s lives, prom, birthdays, GCSEs, college, heartache and grief, as they mature and come to terms with who they are as individuals and as a group. Different rates of growth cause friction, jealousy and misunderstanding as relationships are tested, but persistent loyalty and love prevent any single member from ever truly falling away.
Matilda Feyisayo Ibini’s script is a masterclass of ensemble storytelling. Each of the four characters is complex and distinct in themselves, receiving fulfilling and challenging arcs in which the actors can flourish under Jade Lewis’s direction. The dialogue is instinctive, more like verbatim than scripted words, meaning the entire piece is grounded and familiar. The banter between the girls is fast and hilarious but equally, there are innumerable moments in which the words hold immense force as vulnerabilities are disclosed. Funmi when discussing prom says “I want a moment that lasts, I want a night that I look back on and think I wasn’t a nobody at school, that someone saw me,” a beautiful, agonising moment where I’m sure the majority of the audience felt seen. This is simply one of the impressive things that this play achieves. Despite varying personal backgrounds, you will witness your own insecurities and joy held in this production - it cuts right to the source and it is marvellous.
Sleepova is fantastically layered in its representation. Beyond the main headline of black female relationships, Ibini’s script dares to depict queerness, religion, grief and chronic illness in the form of Shan’s sickle-cell disease. These themes serve far more than a box-ticking exercise and prove that when done well, multifaceted diversity creates rich and valuable stories for all to enjoy. Credit must also be shared with the Bush Theatre, who continue to support some of the most exciting and challenging work around, showing other programming houses how it can be done.
For a production like this to work effectively, the cast must form a convincing group and the greatest compliment I can give is that I believed in their friendship. From start to finish the cast’s chemistry was organic and comfortable, each one thriving off the energy of the rest. As Shan, Aliyah Odoffin is likeable and relatable, championing her girls to be their best selves all whilst delivering a faithful depiction of life with a chronic illness. Amber Grappy’s Rey has matured faster than the rest with a more boisterous attitude to match, but is quick to share advice when needed, nicely contrasting Shayde Sinclair’s Elle whose more sheltered, religious upbringing results in her reciting bible passages and a desperate need to make her mum proud. Lastly, Funmi, portrayed by Bukky Bakray, is the witty joker of the group and arguably the glue that holds them together. Each one of these women treats us to exceptional performances and all have exciting careers ahead of them.
XANA has provided stunning sound design for this production, full of bass and rhythm that neatly underscores the piece. They have also utilised voice note conversations between the girls that add context and plot during the scene transitions - a nice touch. Cara Evans’s design is delightful, creating a versatile sunken space for the plot to play out, complete with neat storage for prop access, all beautifully lit by Elliot Griggs. Jade Lewis and her creative team have worked perfectly in tandem to ensure the style of this production is cohesive and tonally accurate.
Productions like this are rarer than they should be but Matilda Feyisayo Ibini has shown how it can be done. With a stellar cast and a creative team on fire, this piece is a whirlwind of representation and celebration that is accessible to all. It will have you laughing out loud but will also hold you at the edge of your seat as its emotional weight hits you with full force. An accurate Tupperware time capsule of growing up with your friends by your side. A must see for all.
Running until 8 April - Tickets
Photography by Helen Murray