Sessions, review: an urgent play in need of some dramatic oomph

·2 min read
A strained innver voice: Joseph Black plays Tunde - The Other Richard
A strained innver voice: Joseph Black plays Tunde - The Other Richard

With suicide remaining the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, and a looming mental health crisis in the wake of Covid, Ifeyinwa Frederick’s new one-man play about depression and masculinity has a definite urgency. The raw candour of this Paines Plough and Soho Theatre co-production prompts necessary conversations, but it’s less effective as drama.

The title refers to therapy sessions. Tunde, a British-Nigerian man about to turn 30, has started therapy on the advice of his ex-girlfriend, Rochelle, following his frequent bouts of crying. Now that crying recurs during sex, which interferes with his player image, he boasts to his unseen therapist. Frederick’s script continually shows the gulf between Tunde’s swaggering projections and the scared, emotionally starved person within.

An affecting Joseph Black handles those distinctions sensitively, toggling between the boisterous, flirtatious Tunde and his strained inner voice. He also fills in several supporting characters, both in present day and flashback, while others are introduced via sound recordings. The former method is more illuminating as it shows us Tunde’s interpretation of those relationships and his crippling concern about how other people view him.

The problem is that Tunde is almost too perceptive and self-aware, even before he embarks on therapy. It’s fairly obvious to him, and certainly to us, that his issues stem from a fraught relationship with his father, who scolds him for showing any vulnerability – men don’t do that – and, when he was a child, once punished him for crying by throwing his birthday cake in the bin. However, the father depicted here is too lacking in nuance in his complete refusal to offer emotional support.
Other characters are thinly sketched too, like Tunde’s cosseting mother and cheeky younger sister (who calls when she needs money). In particular we really need a clearer portrait of Rochelle, who plays such a pivotal role in his story – and whose actions fuel a complex revelation that deserves careful unpacking. There isn’t quite enough here to support an 80-minute play.

However, Tunde’s growing isolation after he loses his job and is essentially imprisoned in his flat has wider resonance, as does the generational tension about hitting expected milestones. At 30, his dad already had a house, a wife and children. Should Tunde?

Simisola Majekodunmi’s lighting changes help track shifts in time, location and mood, with angry pulsating orange during a panic attack. More expressive beats like the latter, or more use of music, might enliven Philip J Morris’s precise but bare-bones staging, which unfortunately emphasises the plodding moments in Frederick’s script. Her play effectively tells us the problem – but we don’t always feel it.
Until Dec 4. Tickets: 020 7478 0100;