Review: House of Ife, Bush Theatre ★★★★☆

by Luke Elliott

I’d decided not to read anything about House of Ife prior to seeing the show, so when the incense wafted out through the doors of the main stage, I figured something spiritual was afoot. I’d not thought about it before but our sense of smell isn’t usually engaged in the theatre and it’s very powerful. The set, by Frankie Bradshaw, is a well-designed, simple room of a flat placed between the audience and we’re immediately thrust into the middle of an Ethiopian-British family, post-burial.

Jude Akuwudike and Michael Workeye. Photo: Marc Brenner

The chemistry between the three siblings (Yohanna Ephrem, Karla-Simone Spence, and Michael Workeye) as they muddle through setting up is electric, and it very much felt like we’d intruded on a real-life family. The rhythmic repartee in this opening scene really sets the tone for the use of language throughout the piece, which joyfully includes MLE, Jamaican Patois, and Amharic.

As the play progresses we meet their mother (Sarah Priddy) and eventually their father (Jude Akuwudike), completing the full cast of very capable actors. They play out the messiness of family life with such clarity that I was at times uncomfortable, feeling like a fly on the wall. We see the typical fruits sewn by a working-class immigrant family in the UK: the sacrifices made, the dreams transposed, the dreams deferred. The plays on diaspora, generational gaps, and lost customs are incredibly poignant.

The cast of House of Ife. Photo: Marc Brenner

There are mentions of the war in Ethiopia without it feeling like a callous backdrop but keeping the focus on the brewing war within the family. This culminates in a breakfast scene which had me on the edge of my seat in a way I’ve never been left before. Funny, dynamic, and heartbreaking, writer Beru Tessema, wove something very special into the script, and it was carried aloft in the steady and trusting hands of director Lynette Linton. The lighting and sound, by Jai Morjaria and Duramaney Kamara respectively, shine in multiple places, but especially during the eerie transitions which seem to sometimes transcend time and cultures.

The House of Ife. Photo: Marc Brenner.

I cannot let this pass without especially mentioning Michael Workeye as Yosi, who moves around the set and his castmates with a comfortability that suggests it’s all he’s ever known. A brilliant moment was a seemingly accidental hat flying into the audience and him retrieving it with a well-timed, petulant “…embarrassing, man”. He’s one to watch. It was truly a joy to finally see an Ethiopian story on stage and I was left mulling over a myriad of thoughts and feelings. I was left thinking about what this country takes from us, and what we do to family. And how cruel it is that you will never know if you’ve done enough.

House of Ife is at the Bush Theatre until 11 June.

Read our Q&A with House of Ife writer Beru Tessema now, “I have always wanted to write epic family dramas”

Luke Elliott is an actor and writer from Birmingham. He now lives in South London and is passionate about stage, screen, and literature. His children’s picture book Lines, Lines, Lines! is available through Waterstones.