Five Years with the White Man
Joseph Akybeze stars in this one-hander detailing the life of the little-known historical figure, Augustus Boyle Chamberlayne Merriman-Labor, a barrister and satirist from Sierra Leone who came to live in Edwardian London.
The play involves numerous cuts and jump starts throughout, yet Akybeze is a revelation. However, the storyline does create confusion, juxtaposed with the account of Merriman-Labor, or ABC as he is referred to. The actor breaks the fourth wall by telling us that his boyfriend wrote the play before he passed away, and Akybeze falls into a bout of melancholia, though it is unclear if he is portraying another person at this point. Empathetic as we may be, there are a certain number of mixed messages being presented. The stage direction is favourable, as are the props for the most part; but there is a lamp which, weirdly enough, is ABC’s lover, John Roberts, and makes no sense.
Throughout the piece, the question of what is fiction and what is real arises often, which is perhaps the intention of writers Eloka Obi and Saul Boyer. The main highlight is Akybeze’s ability to carry the show, and his performance sparkles.
There are themes of Queer Black identity, bereavement and race explored fairly, but the mix of bio-play, breaking of the fourth wall, and historical storyline does not work all that well. ABC wrote a book (recently republished) entitled Britons Through Negro Spectacles, a satirical spoof subverting the colonial viewpoint of the Empire, and this is loosely included in Five Years.
The show would have functioned more fluidly had there not been extraneous characters, who make it hard for viewers to follow the narrative and become invested. Nonetheless, Akybeze’s performance goes from strength to strength. If only the piece reflected the evidently rich life of ABC and was better aligned.
Five Years with the White Man is on at The Vaults from 9th until 12th March 2023.
Read more reviews from our Vault Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Vault Festival website here.