Black T-Shirt Collection @ Bristol Old Vic (Studio) – Review

Inua Ellams
Nigerian-born poet, performer and playwright, Inua Ellams’ new show Black T-Shirt Collection stopped off at Bristol Old Vic this week before heading to London for a run at The National Theatre next month. Previously performed in Bristol in January as part of the Old Vic’s Ferment Festival, the story follows two young brothers in their journey from Nigeria to Egypt, London and China as they make their way from local businessmen to national sensation and then on to becoming international players in the global fashion industry.

Matthew and Mohammed are foster brothers, one Christian and one Muslim, living in Jos, Nigeria where a moment of chance inspiration during a fight leads them to start a business designing, sewing and selling black T-shirts printed with unusual designs and comical or political slogans. The business grows quickly and soon the boys are the talk of the town and the country but just as they are riding high on their success they are forced to flee the country and start again from scratch in Egypt, where they find local renown and eventually are visited by buyers from the world’s fashion capitals keen to get their hands on the unique designs. As the Black T-Shirt Collection brand grows, the duo head to London from where they grow their operation until the story reaches its shocking conclusion in China and back where it started in Jos.

Though there are many players in this story, the performance itself is a one-man show, performed as a monologue by Ellams himself. For a piece that lasts around 70 minutes, this is an impressive feat of both stamina and memory, not only to maintain the level of intensity required to tell the story but also to remember the frequent poetic flourishes and get them out without stumbling. This is, no doubt, challenging to perform but it is also something of a challenge for the audience. Keeping track of the cast of characters and processing Ellams’ quick-fire delivery of line after line of dialogue demanded a very conscious effort of concentration and with the fast pace of the story it would be quite easy to lose track of even what country the boys are in if your thoughts were to drift momentarily.

The story itself is a great yarn though and Ellams delivery is highly proficient as he moves between spotlights around the stark stage, the only additions to his solo performance being some hand-drawn illustrations and the movement of a couple of black benches to show the transitions between countries. Unsurprisingly from a poet, the performance is all about drawing you in through the words. Thematically and structurally the story is in the tradition of a classical poetry – you quickly find yourself rooting for the two heroes against the backdrop of friends and villains and the international setting of the story gives it a sense of an epic quest. Following this tradition there are joyous moments as the boys find success but also tragedy as the consequences of this success play out.

Similarly ambitious is the range of hot-button topics that the story touches on, from homophobia and religious tension in Nigeria to the dark sides of the globalisation of the fashion industry. As a piece of storytelling, this could stand alone written-down but the live setting and the urgency of Ellams’ delivery is particularly effective as the brothers’ story reaches its breathless and stunning climax.