BWW Review: LITTLE MISS BURDEN, The Bunker
The 90's was an incredible decade for music, film and fashion. It was also a time when society in general was less accepting. For anyone who didn't fit the brief of what was once considered 'normal', life was far more challenging than it is now. In 2019 there is still much work to be done, though it must be said that in general terms we have finally come to embrace diversity. We have London Pride, Black History Month and Mental Health Awareness Week. People with physical disabilities, though, still seem to be on the periphery and are all too easily swept under the carpet. Fitting then, that this new play by Matilda Ibini is being performed underground at the Bunker Theatre.
This coming-of-age comedy / drama centres on Little Miss Burden, who was born with a physical impairment that grows progressively more severe until she is eventually confined to a wheelchair. As she and Big Sis and Little Sis reflect on growing up in Hackney and all of the highs and lows that came with it, Little Miss chronicles her personal experiences battling a disability. With her school peers accusing her of faking it and her mother constantly convincing her daughter and herself that she will 'get better', Little Miss feels trapped in more ways than one.
The play successfully demystifies stereotypes but thanks to Ibini's own personal experiences and her distinctive writing style, does so in a very humorous and character-driven way. We see the protagonist as Little Miss Burden before we focus on the wheelchair or her condition, which by no means defines who she is as a person.
Helen Hebert's paint spattered set is mostly white, permitting the characters to do all the talking. Entering in full 90's getup complete with bum bags, Little Sis (Ani Nelson) and Big Sis (Michelle Tiwo) immediately address the audience and encourage participation. This establishes an energetic and inviting energy which permeates for the majority of the two hour plus play.
We are told it's story time and presented with a children's picture book in the style of Mr Men, only here it is a wheelchair bound Little Miss Burden who adorns the cover. As Big Sis and Little Sis explain how their sister was born with her feet the wrong way round, the play recounts their childhood with three milestone birthdays determining its structure.
The punchy dialogue bounces from actor to actor effortlessly, which contributes to the high tempo of the piece. The three performers work incredibly well together and with their sibling rivalry and incessant banter we genuinely believe they are sisters. Nelson and Twio in particular enjoy a seamless chemistry and are a delight to watch throughout.
The two also have a lot of fun multi-rolling. Nelson is exceptional as the girl's mother. Adopting a native Nigerian accent and altering her way of moving allows the actress to completely morph into this new character. The results are highly convincing. Nelson is also impressive as a primary school pupil in one of the funnier scenes whereby Little Miss and two friends talk about sex and she also displays strong vocal ability.
Tiwo also delivers when portraying both primary and secondary students but it's her scene as a Pastor that generates a great deal of laughter. Capturing the protective demeanour of the oldest sibling, Tiwo offers a multi-layered and thoughtful performance.
Saida Ahmed is our title character. Depicting such an array of feelings when in a wheelchair is no mean feat but the actress more than rises to the challenge. Demonstrating excellent comedy skills with several well timed glances to the audience, Ahmed is able to tell us so much with her facial expressions alone.
We care about this character and her journey and that is of course down to the writing but Ahmed certainly elevates the script and makes the role her own. A poignant scene in which she confronts her mother with the truth of her situation prompting her mother to finally accept she is disabled is heartbreaking to watch with Ahmed and Nelson interacting in such a beautifully real and raw way.
The girls break into 90's numbers ranging from Destiny's Child to Salt N' Pepper and a hugely nostalgic rendition of Cleopatra "Comin' Atcha!" These bursts of song are seemingly impromptu but always connected to the plot points or used to emphasise certain thoughts and feelings the characters might be experiencing.
Depression and anxiety are important elements of this story and hot topics in society at present. During one sequence Tiwo dresses in black and represents depression while Nelson is anxiety. There's something about this that feels a little unnecessary and almost amateurish. The same points could be made without being so literal. This is the only jarring moment of the play that feels somewhat out of sync with the rest of the material.
There are other moments when the momentum dips a little and arguably certain scenes could be filtered down or cut altogether without losing anything from the story. The play might also do better without an interval, which does seem to slam the breaks on prematurely. Regardless of this, the acting is impressive, the script heartfelt and the story important.
Ibini can't hold back from making reference to UK politics and rightly so. This comes during the final moments of the play and doesn't overshadow the journey that Little Miss and her sisters take us on.
Closing with the repeated mantra 'You have the right to just be' reiterates all of the key themes and guarantees you leave the Bunker feeling uplifted but also informed and perhaps with a new perspective when it comes to disability. This is a fine example of the importance of theatre and the power it has to provide voices to those who need to be heard.
Photo credit: Kofi Dwaah