The house lights dim, a backing track kicks into life. Inua Ellams – poet, playwright, and performer – appears dressed in what I presume is traditional garb parading through the assembled audience. He entreats us to clap in time (naturally we do), before breaking into self-deprecating laughter. Right from the start Ellams had us in the palm of his hand, and for ninety minutes took all of us on a journey from Nigeria, to London, to Ireland and finally back to London, where for now that journey has currently halted. That journey is the story his life, told through poetry and anecdotes collected together into An Evening with an Immigrant.
An Evening with An Immigrant is not an ordinary theatrical event. There are no sets, no costumes, minimal lighting and few props. Instead the work is populated only with Ellams’ poetry, his anecdotes and his personality. The show’s simplicity of delivery belies its depth of emotion and meaning. It was a master class in quality storytelling, and in the art of capturing and holding an audiences attention. The performance, for me, showed Ellams to be an unquestionably gifted storyteller, a charismatic and compelling presence on stage and a wonderful poet. It was a consummate performance, unhurried, restrained and perfectly paced.
The show’s narrative thread follows Ellams’ life, and that of his family, as they try to navigate life as migrants forced from their homes in Nigeria due to threats of violence. Their story and its struggles do not end there. The family are upended repeatedly, forced to move from their new “home” in London, then forced from their adopted country of Ireland thanks again to violence and threats, before returning to London, to a life that was, and remains , far from secure.
In another writer or performer’s hands An Evening with an Immigrant could be a much gloomier affair. Ellams has undeniably experienced real hardship, far more than I have ever experienced, yet he injects many of his stories with a great deal of humour. Despite the hard times he’s experienced, and predicts for the future, there remains an almost infectious optimism about Ellams – an irreverence that balance out the sadder, more sombre moments when they come. And they do come, there were moments when Ellams appeared genuinely emotional and had to take pause.
An Evening with an Immigrant was, perhaps, the perfect introduction to Ellams and his work. Judging by the mass of audience members queuing to purchase his poetry books and have them signed, I am not alone in thinking this. An Evening with an Immigrant is a compelling and captivating work that is capable of moving you to laughter, to outrage and perhaps even to tears. Ellams is a wonderfully gifted storyteller and poet, and if he should bring this show to your town I strongly suggest you go. You will not regret it.
An Evening with an Immigrant has now finished its run at Perth International Arts Festival. Inua Ellams will also be running The Midnight Run as part of the festival with The Last Great Hunt next weekend 3rd & 4th March.
The reviewer attended the 5pm performance on Saturday 25th February