Review: Oliva Tweest – Please sah, can I have some more!

 

The producers of this show get full marks for being the first off the block in making this musical. They’ve scored a considerable coup in using the name of the most recognizable song to come out of Africa for a longtime, D’Banj’s Oliver Twist, a song which plays cleverly on the eponymous Oliver’s presumed love of excess.

Apart from the lead character’s apparently insatiable appetite for women, there is notoriously little of the original Oliver Twist story in this musical though – this is about ‘Oliva Tweest’ as the global meme that means someone with an insatiable appetite for something. Instead, this is a love story-cum-loveable rogue story, which gets most of its excitement, not from the story, which it must be said is thinly developed; instead, this musical gets its excitement from the deep list of Afrobeat hits which form the score to the action, bringing life to already classic and loved hits like Yemi Alade’s ‘Johnny’, and many others – and the barnstorming performances of the dancers.

The plot is boiler plate. The hero of the story is a club promoter called Tobi, a bad boy who plays girls and leaves them, watched by his sidekicks, played respectively by the portly and incredibly graceful second half of Azonto dancing duo Home Bros, and Tom Moutchi – part of actors’ collective, Expensive.

Tobi’s mother, a stereotyped portrayal of many a Nigerian matriarch deplores his behaviour and blames herself for the lack of a father figure in his life, a problem she comes close to remedying when she meets a Pastor, and his daughter, Testimony. Testimony who secretly wants to become a singer, performs under a false name at the Cokobar, where our hero is often to be found, usually hiding from his overzealous love interest, a Jamaican girl, Keysha.

When her secret is revealed all hell breaks loose.

Painfully the story doesn’t really fulfil its potential. The characters are little more than stereotypes and vehicles for cheap jokes, and the device of a song as an expression of emotion, or a particular mental state was not always perfectly achieved. Narratively, one leaves feeling cheated, as the characters never work that hard to win our emotional engagement. There are moments of brilliance though – the characters referring to Keysha and Tobi’s entanglements as a “situationship”; the deft use of particular proverbs, including this pithy number about the strong- headed: “Ears that will not listen to advice, accompany the head when it is chopped off” and – the freestyle by a group of dancers, although irrelevant to the story, are all slick crowdpleasers.

More worryingly, as an audience we’re invited to laugh at one of the characters who stutters- to their credit, the audience I was a part of, was noticeably uncomfortable and did not laugh. This reliance on base stereotype also reflects on the character of Keysha, the only non-African character in the play, although we ultimately pity her, it’s not to the writer’s credit that her every behaviour is a stereotype of Africans’ worst assumptions about their West Indian cousins.  Still, despite all this, Oliva Tweest is not only redeemed, but also elevated by its ambition, and the sheer enthusiasm of the performances, including, the really extraordinary vocal talents of Vicky Sola, in the role of Testimony.

There are many familiar faces to followers of Afrobeats culture, in particular a whole host of Youtube stars – the strong performances came from the actor who plays the pastor; the lead actor is satisfactory but not impressive in his role, though Tom Moutchi gives a pleasant performance as his sidekick.

But the person that shines most in this, less for her acting, and more for her belter of a voice, is the singer Vicky Sola who plays Testimony.

All that said, the songs are the real crowdpleasers and stars of the show, and it’s clear that with a stronger story, and direction this musical, with its potent combination of music from popular culture and ribald theatre has the potential to be a barnstorming success both in the UK and Nigeria, nuances of audience notwithstanding. But it will need to get a better more nuanced story that does credit to the intelligence of African and non-African audiences alike.

Oliva Tweest the Afrobeats Musical was at Hackney Empire September 6 – 7th 2014. 

Dele Meiji Fatunla

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