The Clinic has all the right ingredients to be a solid state of the nation play. Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s new work is probing, well acted, dramatically staged. But somehow the pieces just don’t fit together, the souffle doesn’t rise, and the result is frustratingly disjointed.
It’s a play that asks Big Questions about the modern black experience, touching on assimilation, intersectionality, class and activism. Its characters are ciphers, each representing a standpoint in the culture war. All of which is fine – these are indeed Big Questions that playwrights will be grappling with for many years to come. But the play’s didactic backbone – Baruwa-Etti acknowledges it started out as a “thought experiment” – feels at odds with the slightly trashy thriller he throws into the mix.
It begins at the 60th birthday party of British-Nigerian family patriarch Segun, a lauded psychotherapist with several books to his name and a snazzy modernist flat to suit. In attendance are his wife Tiwa, who doesn’t need to work but volunteers at a women’s shelter; his daughter Ore, a doctor-in-training; his son Bayo, a high-ranking policeman; and Bayo’s wife Amina, a Labour MP. Between them they have the major bases of the British public sector covered.
Ore (played by the excellent Gloria Obianyo) is The Clinic’s initial driving force behind the play. Utterly disillusioned by the health service, she self-destructively drinks and dishes out vicious barbs to her family, especially Bayo, who she sees as a stooge to the white establishment. One day she brings home bereaved, suicidal single mother-cum-activist Wunmi, having entertained the woman’s request for a lethal dose of morphine; Ore insists she first spends some time in the family home. This problematic premise – a doctor flirting with murder, essentially – is never really explored and is later all but abandoned.
The first half is structured around a series of debates – are black people obliged to help other black people? Are Britain’s public institutions irredeemably racist? – while the second half lurches towards knowing, straight-to-video melodrama. Surreal elements also begin to creep in, including a special blend of tea that may or may not be laced with drugs, and lights that flicker ominously during moments of tension. These add intrigue but, like the play’s various plot strands, don’t really go anywhere.
At just 27 and with four fairly major plays already under his belt, Baruwa-Etti is a rising talent of the British theatre scene. But I suspect we’ll look back at The Clinic in decades to come as an awkward early work rather than the moment a star was born.