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The Dark review at Ovalhouse, London – ‘richly textured elegy for Uganda’

Akiya Henry and Michael Balogun in The Dark at Ovalhouse, London. Photo: Helen Murray
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Pieced together from what author and poet Nick Makoha describes as fragments of “memory and imagination,” The Dark is a richly textured exploration of the fine line between escape and exile.

Based on events from his childhood, during which his mother smuggled him out of Idi Amin’s Uganda on an overnight bus, the story unfolds as a series of sketches, jumping around in time and bouncing, often chaotically, between the perspectives of various characters.

Taking on several roles apiece, performers Michael Balogun and Akiya Henry spend much of the show swivelling on the spot, switching rapidly between personas. Some are vividly realised. Henry’s pregnant street vendor is a forceful presence, impassioned but jaded by the state of her nation. Balogun nails the loose-limbed, wide-eyed mannerisms of Makoha as a child.

Director Roy Alexander Weise moves things along at a quick pace, letting tension develop naturally between skits, but allowing it to dissipate during the script’s occasional bursts of heightened, imagistic language.

Rajha Shakiry’s design makes the most out of the space, incorporating bus seats, a cluttered writing desk, and a patch of sparse turf emerging from dusty ochre earth. An overburdened luggage rack sways overhead, creating the impression of constant movement. It’s set off by a moody lighting design from Neill Brinkworth, contrasting focused backlights with dull, ruddy ambience. In the play’s closing moments, as Makoha arrives at British immigration control, he emerges from the familiar semi-darkness to be scrutinised beneath the harsh, unwelcoming glare of halogens.

 

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Verdict
Evocative, if inelegant, autobiographical elegy for 1970s Uganda
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