Pandora’s Box at Arcola Theatre

In Pandora’s Box, talented playwright Ade Solanke looks at Nigerian families who send their western-born children back to Nigeria for their secondary education and in doing so, she cleverly reminds us of the persistent racial issues that exist in the UK and the changing world-view of countries like Britain and Nigeria.

But the issue of old-school education vs liberal London living is an issue that an audience is likely to approach with its mind already made up and Solanke offers little to challenge us. As this play goes back and forth discussing whether a child needs his “mother or his motherland”, her arguments become too neat and her unevenly developed characters fail to pick up on some of the more, indefinable, universal issues that are present in this play.

One such issue is the bond between mother and son as demonstrated by the confused and cautious Toyin, who gives in to her 15 year-old son Timi’s adolescent requests and typically remains unaware of his activities. As she contemplates leaving her son in Nigeria to keep him safe, Toyin – herself the daughter of a mother who left her homeland to seek a better life – makes me question how much of this is a gender issue. Are mothers too soft on their sons and prepared to take drastic measures for them over their daughters?

Though this isn’t what Solanke is getting at in Pandora’s Box, my question is addressed briefly in a sideways manner as Toyin clashes with her older sister, Ronke – who was left in Nigeria by their mother – and her friend Bev about where Timi is better off.

What comes tumbling out of this cleverly taught set-up is a useful, often hilarious discussion of social values, modulated by the sporadic arrival of Toyin’s clown-like uncle who thinks Timi should stay in London. However, amidst the humour of these characters it becomes abundantly clear that while Bev and Ronke – two superb performances from Yetunde Oduwole and Petra Letang –  are steeped in ambitions, opinions and hurt, Toyin is remarkably one-dimensional, defined only by her current predicament leaving actress Anna- Maria Nabirye with little to work with.

This unevenness is present throughout the play which hasn’t quite decided how much credit to give its audience. There are some five-star scenes which arise from natural conflict and present us with something important, unclear and ripe for discussion; like the one in which Ronke turns on her London-born sister and calls her  “ a second class citizen of an undeveloping nation”.

But there are too many scenes that explain far too much, spelling things out for us unnecessarily and simplifying the arguments which inevitably whittle down to gang culture in London vs all work no play Nigerian education that supposedly makes better men out of young boys. But there is much more to this multifaceted issue that Solanke doesn’t elevate in this undeniably hilarious but simplistic play.

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