Like his co-star Michaela Coel in covid smash hit I May Destroy You, writer and actor Tobi King Bakare is a polymath. The writer and only performer in Before I Go, he has created a hilarious, moving and poignant show about mental health and what it means to be a young black man today, where there are simultaneously endless rules and none, set by society, peers and ourselves.
It begins with Ajani (Bakare) ringing friends to join him for one of his famous cookouts. He is so delighted about the prospect of starting the barbecue, his smile and energy practically light up the theatre. Bakare’s youthful exuberance feels entirely genuine – a key ingredient to the success of the show in general. This is the quality which is so engaging, and which the audience instantly warmed to: authenticity. Unfortunately, fate has other ideas planned. Ajani is electrocuted and presumably for a time, dies. A posh voice booms down from speakers (Bakare speaking in an RP accent), a guardian angel of sorts who challenges him to face his emotions and think about his brother who is in prison, his loneliness and his relationship with his family. Previously this guy had been so damn happy that when the atmosphere turns when thinking about mental health and repressed anger which has been shut out of sight for a long time, we as an audience care about his life and where it's going. This all sounds quite heavy as a subject but Bakare deals with his subject lightly, throwing in jokes and wry smiles when we need reassurance. It’s a skilled performer who can cover these subjects and make us care – but more so that we care, yet we’re not depressed with the sheer weight of the task on hand, which is the reality that hundreds of thousands of young people in this country struggle with their mental health, and it seems set to get worse. But Bakare touches on the heaviness, then balances it with a moment of comedy.
Poetry isn’t usually something that traditionally engages younger generations, but Bakare’s funny and cheeky writing and quick pace performance match the dynamism of the whole piece. His energy is quick and sharp, and the rhythm of the rhyme match his energy perfectly. Like Keats or Shakespeare before him, Bakare’s writing feels relevant and fresh. ‘Voice of his generation’ is a cliché but here it is true. And he hasn’t just written a thoughtful and funny piece but knows his script well enough to give in life and legs. These characters formed with verse are so succinctly described, they almost walk around the stage with him. He encapsulates the joyful energy of youth and open-hearted naivety, and the difficult realisation that some of this celebratory joie de vivre is a mask to conceal more difficult emotions. For example, when he rings his friend in the opening scene, he re-records it several times to get the pitch-perfect – and increasingly enthusiastic. Before I Go should be a difficult piece to watch. A one-man show about a young man who is electrocuted and arrives in limbo to think about mental health and repressed emotions, it could, easily, be dry and sombre as a piece of theatre. However, I’m happy to say the opposite is true.
Also, Bakare and this theatre deserve a shout-out for such a young, diverse audience. There is so much talk about audiences being full of over 60s and why, why can’t theatres get the crowds in to reflect society in general? Well, I’m happy to say that on a rainy Thursday evening, the theatre – admittedly quite small but the point still stands – was completely full. So maybe we need new writing by people in their 20s to attract audiences in their 20s… sounds so simple when it's written down.
Review: Caiti Grove