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RHODESIA, 1970. The waspish Lady L (Suzanna Hamilton) prepares for her upcoming birthday party in the baneful presence of her opportunistic offspring (Theo Bamber and Lucy Lowe), who have arrived to carve out their portions of their late father’s estate.
On the other side of the estate, servant Kapenie (Mensah Bediako) receives his grandson George (Joseph Rowe) and refuses his offer of a new life in Washington, citing simply: “Madam needs me.”
It’s an all-too-familiar structure steeped in romantic tropes about race and privilege in colonial Africa, where servitude is mistaken for loyalty and condescension for sentiment — the loyal black servant persists in his devotion to the cantankerous lady of the house who, in a sudden rush of feeling, invites him to dance and offers him a portion of the estate.
Fabulous costumes aside, Alexander Matthews’s new play takes a well-trodden narrative and leapfrogs the opportunities it presents for compelling social criticism, delivering instead a story encumbered by philosophical perambulations almost entirely divorced from their rich and complex setting.
The performers are generally good, with Bediako’s reticent charm absorbing Hamilton’s strident energy. But mostly they struggle with a grandiloquent text that allows little room for real heart.
In a culture loathe to acknowledge the realities of its colonial past, My One True Friend slips into the pitfalls of British nostalgia which still prefers to imagine a monolithic Africa devoid of nuance and incapable of self-reflection.
In the end, though her conceit has left her friendless in an empty house, Lady L can always count on her loyal Kapenie to emerge from behind the sofa for a waltz around the living room.
Runs until September 14, box office: actorscentre.co.uk.
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