House of Ife review – buried secrets unearthed by grief | Theater

House of Ife begins in mourning, as three siblings come together after their brother’s funeral. What follows is an engrossing family drama of guilty secrets and past trauma which swings from tearfulness to lightness and then back to grief.

The backstory seeps out slowly; that the siblings’ late brother, Ife, was a drug addict not yet 30, that their father Solomon (Jude Akuwudike) left their mother, Meron (Sarah Priddy), in north London to start up a second family back home in Ethiopia, and that there is unfinished business between this absent father and his children.

Beru Tessema’s script is richly textured and artfully written, although the story seems to waver in its focus for too long and then throws out too much at the end. There are big switches in tone, too, and it is testimony to Lynette Linton’s direction of her and the actors themselves that the shifts in register work so smoothly.

We only ever see the family at home; the narrow traverse stage (set design by Frankie Bradshaw) feels intimate but never claustrophobic.

Warmth and complexity … Karla-Simone Spence, Jude Akuwudike and Michael Workeye. Photographer: Marc Brenner

The drama is particularly strong in drawing out the love, warmth and complexity of sibling relationships. The scenes between them dramatize guilt, grief and cultural tensions. “I wish I had known him before the drugs,” says the youngest brother, Yosi (Michael Workeye), while Ife’s twin, Aida (Karla-Simone Spence), seems swallowed up by guilt: “I should never have let him get like that.” Meanwhile, Tsion (Yohanna Ephrem), speaks of the emotional burden of having an addict in the family: “He used to come here off his face from him.” This is a powerful statement for its focus on those who witness addiction at close quarters rather than experience it, so it is a shame that it is left hanging.

The performances paste over the script’s cracks and every actor is engaging and assured. Workeye brings excellent comic timing to Yosi, the lovably cheeky wannabe rapper, while Spence is compelling as Aida, although she occasionally speaks in sentences that sound wooden in their lyricism. Priddy brings a heartstopping moment of maternal grief at the start; and Akuwudike is both disarmingly charming as the father and unbendingly didactic in his biblical homilies of him.

The climax of the play brings several buried secrets in a single scene. Late-coming revelations around sexuality, childhood abuse and financial betrayal seem too much like plot-points that might have become bigger, more impactful discussions if given room to be developed and unpicked. Even so, this play is an absorbing one that showcases a wealth of talent, and its greatest shortcoming is that we are left, at the end, wanting more.

At the Bush theatre, London, until 11 June.

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