Review: Family Tree by Mojisola Adebayo at Belgrade Theatre ★★★★★
Mojisola Adebayo is a master storyteller, and Family Tree is a lit firework ready to explode with activism, sisterhood, and revelation – exposing an unsettling but essential racialised history.
Family Tree | Touring around the UK including Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and Brixton House, London | From 10 March – 17 June
Photos by Helen Murray
The global story which runs through Mojisola Adebayo’s Family Tree takes us from Henrietta Lacks’ story of being the uncredited heart of the groundbreaking scientific breakthrough that is the HeLa cell line, to the women giving everything on the NHS front line today – and is a beautiful meditation on the trials of our post-pandemic world. Family Tree is a call for change and to end our complacency in racism.
The writing is extraordinary – Adebayo’s work should be taught at schools, and would feel very at home in the Dorfman at the National Theatre – with each scene feeling like a series of spoken word power poems delivered with fire and commitment from an amazing cast of performers: Aminita Francis, Mofetoluwa Akande, Keziah Joseph, Aimée Powell and the silent but deadly Alistair Hall.
Each performer brings a new layer to the multiverse that the writing creates. Aminita Francis’ opening monologue introduction is astounding and her Henrietta Lacks’ is funny, touching and frank. The powerhouse acting trio of Akande, Joseph and Powell is the true emotional crux of the piece, and there performances are a masterclass in honest emotion – they battle big issues around race, health and white supremacy in a relatable and often funny way. Playing multiple characters, they shine a light on the universality of the issues raised across time and place, and how nothing has really changed.
Matthew Xia’s direction is on the whole tight, and the ensemble feel like a deeply connected family comfortable with personal acts like plaiting hair, through to ritual, earthy, spiritual dances. There are a few slow moments, particularly around transitions between scenes – but by the end of the 95 minutes you won’t want to leave these characters behind. The run-time could possibly be shaved a little and given a little more ‘pow’, but there are so many beautifully written speeches that it would be difficult to cut anything major.
The set is a play on Stonehenge-style mystic earthiness, with circle areas and stone plinths seemingly awaiting a ritual ceremony. The eponymous tree, a metal double helix of DNA which forms the most distinctive part of Simon Kenny’s set design, is a little clunky – perhaps better if it embodied a little more nature and less industry. Seeing the scenes in nature in its work in development outing in 2021, the real tree was so powerful – and the show being moved indoors to a traditional staging perhaps loses a little of the wild and free ambience that imbues Adebayo’s writing. However, the incredible ital stew offered to the audience at the end of the performance reminds us of the importance of community, eating together and talking about the issues raised.
Actors Touring Company have created a contemporary masterpiece which questions the costs (and thankless sacrifice) of scientific progress, family and ignoring a difficult past – a must-see on its tour around the UK.
Family Tree by Mojisola Adebayo – Actors Touring Company and Belgrade Theatre co-production in association with Brixton House. Runs until 18 March at The Belgrade Theatre before touring nationwide until 17 June.
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