by Robyn Ong
LONDON – On the heels of a successful run at Peckham Fringe 2022, Sunny Side Up made a brief return to Theatre Peckham this February, where I was lucky enough to catch its sold-out final show. Written and performed by David Alade and directed by Suzann McLean, the play is an autobiographical coming-of-age tale, experienced through the eyes of Lil D, Alade’s younger alter ego.
The play is dedicated to Alade’s late father Sunny, and its title is a tribute to him — and rightfully so, as Sunny is consistently the cornerstone of Lil D’s growth, a figure he orbits and develops both alongside and in opposition to. It is quickly established that Sunny is not your typical Nigerian father: he wants to be a modern dad and, emotionally, he is open and expressive; unlike the other kids in his neighbourhood and their fathers, Lil D has even seen him cry. In childhood, Sunny is the head of the family “dream team”, the Mufasa to Lil D’s Simba; then, as he gets older, Lil D seeks and is pushed towards a different, aggressively hypermasculine ideal; later still, in university and early adulthood, he must contend with Sunny’s illness, gradual decline, and death.
Through a series of vignettes, we watch Lil D grow up as a young Black boy in Peckham. We are charmed as he takes us through a childhood in the Peckham Estates, cycling through the neighbourhood with his friends and listening to his older brother’s soulful R&B mixtapes — and so his first encounters with traditional masculinity and violence in adolescence are rendered all the more jarring. University offers a relative escape, but Sunny’s health is declining, and all roads seem to lead back home.
The play sets out to talk about growing up and grief, and it does so expertly. Alade is candid about the fact that Sunny Side Up is based in truth — he reminds us that “this all happened to me” at multiple points in the performance, “but, let’s not call him me, let’s call him Lil D”. Lil D works as a clever framing device, as through him Alade is able to turn a thoughtful and objective eye to how the particularities of his environment and his influences growing up might have shaped him into the person he is today. Later, in the wake of his father’s death, Alade trails off before the end of his usual refrain — no longer performing as Lil D, he instead embodies fully all of the complicated, messy emotions surrounding his grief, in a powerful moment that serves both as catharsis and as an apt conclusion to his ruminations on masculinity and identity.
Alade’s strength as a performer is such that you often forget that you are watching a one-man show. He introduces Lil D and the other characters in his life so deftly that it comes as a bit of a surprise when, in the end, it is only Alade walking offstage. It’s also worth noting that the places he makes reference to have been gentrified considerably since the days of Lil D — the most dangerous estates he talks about have now made way for several swanky, high-rise condominiums — but with a particular South London lyricism to his delivery, Alade brings to life the Peckham of not too long ago, and we are very quickly swept up in the currents of Lil D’s story.
Of course, some credit must be given to the set designers, Natalie Pryce and Miriam Nabarro. The staging and set design are fairly sparse, ensuring that sole focus is on Lil D, and whilst a lesser performer might falter, Alade’s presence and conviction allow him to command the stage. Composed only of several metal cages and a wooden bench, all of which are moved around as the performance goes on, the set is simple but effective in demarcating not only the changes in Lil D’s environment, but also his mental and emotional state, as well as the obligations and expectations he is confined by at any given point in time.
Despite the relative weight of its subject matter, Sunny Side Up is buoyed by moments of humour and genuine warmth. It is at once an exploration of grief and a love letter to growing up in a particular place, at a particular time, and especially to the bond between a father and his son. The audience gets to chuckle at the play’s wryly relatable moments — Lil D’s attempts to woo his primary school crush whilst borrowing her sharpener, for instance, or his dramatic insistence on a personal rebrand! upon entering university — but we end things on a sombre note, as Alade reminds us all to check on our grief, to pay it due attention and allow it space to breathe. It’s a poignant message, and a necessary one — and anyone who has experienced loss will likely find a piece of themselves in Lil D.
Photo Credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Sunny Side Up played from 14th February to 4th March 2023 at Theatre Peckham 221 Havil Street London. More information available here
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