Have I forgotten how good actors can be on stage, or is David Jonsson just incredibly gifted? Either way, the star of Industry delivers a virtuoso performance in this hour-long one-man meditation on black masculinity and grief, adapted from the debut poetry collection of Yomi á¹¢ode.
Jonsson plays Junior, a young man coming to terms with the approaching death of his grandmother, Big Mummy. She’s the family matriarch, and her illness has been kept a secret for two years, leaving him wounded with confusion and betrayal. There’s the sense that no one in his family knows exactly how to behave in regard to this massive imminent loss; buttoning up emotions feels like a way to control the mess. “That cultural fing,” Junior calls it.
He’s startled when his own feelings begin to leak out. He bursts into tears on the bus, but feels the pressure to “get a grip, be a man”. á¹¢ode’s text, switching easily between witty and contemplative, feels like a battle for black men to be able to express their pain.
Jonsson was meant to star in Jeremy O. Harris’s Daddy at this same address last year, set design installed and all – thanks for nothing, Covid – so maybe that’s why he’s been storing up one hell of a performance. He has a powerful ability to create an almost magical sense of intimacy with the audience, looking at us like he’s sharing a secret, all knowing smiles and shrugs, before switching to a scared young man, bewildered by his own sadness. He juggles a range of characters superbly, and director Miranda Cromwell has helped create a gentle physical language that perfectly captures á¹¢ode’s phrases, like ‘my body will play Tetris’.
At just an hour long and with a sparse staging, the production is lo-fi – but it still manages to create a soothing and reverent atmosphere. There are projections of forests and oceans against the theatre’s bare brick wall and Femi Temowo, the show’s composer and on-stage musician, makes us feel looked after with his tender and playful accompaniment. At 50 percent capacity, the Almeida felt weirdly like a church.
But the combo of its brevity and the make-do-and-mend austerity give the show a small canvas to work from, and it never quite lifts off. It never feels like it gets out of second gear, and sometimes it’s hard to follow which character is which - ironically, like it all needs more time to breathe. á¹¢ode’s writing is full of bounce and, in Jonsson’s hands, it often soars. But and breathe... feels like more of an amuse bouche, a light dip of a toe into the water – although an inviting one at that.