Two bonsai trees on benches at the front of the stage. A female character, upon breaking in, kicks one of these trees away. It may not be the most subtle message from writer Sarah Henley and director Tori Allen-Martin but Essence is kicking back after the controversy surrounding Tree, which was a production credited to Young Vic Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah and actor/writer/director et al Idris Elba which premiered in Manchester before transferring to London. What was advertised as an South African family drama starring Alfred Enoch and Sinead Cusack because one of the biggest arts stories of the year as Henley and Allen-Martin argued that they had written Tree and were now being written out of their story by Kwei-Armah and Elba with no credit and threats of legal action.
Henley and Allen-Martin formed Burn Bright, which aims to support female writers in the theatre. As female creatives it was potentially career destroying; ownership of productions change often but the isssues surrounding Tree resonated with creative. Essence isn’t just their new work, it is a big statement to show they are still here and not going anywhere.
Essence touches on similar themes to Tree; a family reunion after the death of a parent but the South Africa becomes Peckham. We meet Elyor (Timothy O’Hara) a loner, obsessed with routine but the arrival of Laquaya (Nina Barker-Francis), via a break in, a 14 year old girl claiming to be his daughter changes everything.
After a slow start I felt the relationship between the two characters worked really well. O’Hara as the intense learner always trying to better himself without the aid of people and Baker-Francis as the young feminist trying to fight against her loneliness provided great and believable performances, presenting as an odd couple they were clearly more similar than either anticipated but there were aspects that felt underdeveloped, including the relationship between Irene (Laquaya’s mother) and Elyot.
Irene was Elyot’s teacher and because Irene isn’t around to defend herself Henley seems terrified of the issue of consent, when Laquaya asks if her mother took advantage of the then 18 year old Elyot he shakes his head but it isn’t fully explored what did happen, all that we know is that Irene ended when the relationship became too intense. This should have been a great opportunity to focus on an educated black woman, who made some poor judgements but raised an intelligent, complex daughter.
The focus on Elyot and Laquaya seems to go against what we do know about Laquaya, a young feminist fighting the patriarchy rejects the aunt raising her in favour of a man who may or may not of known of her existence (and lived down the road the entire time). It is shame because Henley’s dialogue is strong, though the dance off at the end felt like a desperate time filler. Tori Allen-Martin’s direction is well done, as the two physically grew closer in every scene. It is a warm play that needs to develop a unique voice.
Essense is on until 23 February 2020 at the Vault Festival. Tickets from £13