Theatre reviews: Boi Boi is Dead and Phoenix Dance Theatre,

Boi Boi is Dead, West Yorkshire Playhouse ****

Boi Boi Is Dead

Leeds-based, Zimbabwe-born young playwright Zodwa Nyoni’s first full-length play is a triumph. 

At the opening night in the Courtyard Theatre the audience was hugely supportive and Nyoni deserved the extended applause at the end of what is a very assured and mature debut exploring the dynamics of a complex family set-up in Zimbabwe. 

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Miriam is lover to (recently deceased) charismatic jazz musician Boi Boi, mother to son Petu (the product of a previous relationship) and surrogate mother to Una since the girl’s mother Stella left 12 years earlier when she was a small child. Now that Boi Boi is dead, estranged wife Stella returns with her own agenda along with Boi Boi’s older brother Ezra, who comes home for the funeral from England where he now lives. 

A fascinating tension is created between the woman who left, the woman who stayed, the ‘sensible’ sibling and the children caught in the middle of it all. While the ghost of Boi Boi is ever-present. As small truths about the kind of man he was gradually emerge, the scene is set for a series of compelling confrontations. 

Nyoni’s ear for dialogue and nimble way with words effortlessly combines pathos with humour to create a hugely satisfying drama that benefits from excellent performances from the whole cast.

• To March 7.

Phoenix Dance Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse ****

Bursting with energy, the first piece in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s outstanding mixed programme at the West Yorkshire Playhouse was a restaging of choreographer Christopher Bruce’s Shift. 

Set in a 1940s factory, the dancers’ movements echoed the repetitive actions of a production line in an exuberant celebration of the sense of purpose that work brings, interspersed with the playfulness of workplace interaction. 

Shadows, another piece by the same choreographer was an altogether darker piece, an affecting study of a family of four preparing to leave their home. The reason for their flight was left ambiguous so each audience member could decide for themselves. For me the costume, music and staging suggested wartime Eastern Europe. 

The second half of the programme opened with Tearfall, a piece created by Phoenix’s artistic director Sharon Watson. Made in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, Tearfall explores the science and emotion behind tears which the company brought vividly to life with movement of extraordinary beauty and fluidity. Bloom, from New Adventures choreographer Caroline Finn, completed the programme on an upbeat. While at times very moving, it was full of humour as the façade of a social gathering – and the roles that people play in those situations – was show beginning to crack. 

Minimal set and staging allowed the dancers the full range of the spacious Quarry stage to great effect.