Review: Black T-Shirt Collection

There’s nothing plain about the clothing in writer and performer Inua Ellams’s bold piece, Black T-Shirt Collection. In telling the tale of Muhammed and Matthew, the trend-setting Nigerian foster-brothers who take their business across the globe, the production plots a journey from humble beginnings to wide, yet deeply problematic, international acclaim.

Produced by the ever-adventurous Fuel, Black T-Shirt Collection is an ambitious and broad exploration of the price we pay for success. There is an immediate intensity as solo performer Ellams brings his sharp description to the interrogation that kicks off the production, before the narrative jerks back to the very beginning of this compelling, symbolic tale.

Muhammed and Matthew’s success story is one that grew from dust. Taking the footprint left on Matthew’s chest after a fight and turning it into a design, the boys transported their brand across the world, intelligently tailoring their items of clothing to meet the diverse lifestyles and cultures of their customers, generating humour and poignancy in turn. In Egypt, the brothers design a shirt specifically for a petty thief, its tearaway back allowing the client to escape capture; later, a commission for a blind member of London’s gay scene leads to a dually sensitive piece boldly declaring, in Braille, that “We do it best in darkness”.

The energy of the sibling team, powered by Matthew’s modest creativity and Muhammed’s winning charisma, is complemented by Ellams’s graphic designs, which flash onto the backdrop at key points in the narrative. This dynamic scenery takes us, comic-book style, through some of the tensest moments within the story and plots the brothers’ international movements. Far more than mere scenery, these images provide a symbolic backdrop, articulating the differences between the brothers and sketching out their opposing characteristics with style.

This balance between the big picture and personal experience powers Black T-Shirt Collection as the piece takes huge leaps across the world. Yes, maps of Egypt and snapshots of London’s cityscape flash up in the background to show the scope of the brothers’ journey, but in a lingering description of a breeze or a carpet, Ellams roots us in the specifics, providing nuanced insights into the countries where Matthew and Muhammed make their mark. Ellams’ snappy prose makes no apologies as it clashes terrorism and fashion, murder and sex, tucking grand themes into the corners of Muhammed and Matthew’s story without compromising on their severity. The result is a dynamic look at globalisation, which hops across borders with ease and flair.

It’s a big piece for one man to take on, but our lone performer is a vibrant, energetic storyteller. Thierry Lawson’s direction arms the piece with a powerful subtlety which brings clarity to Ellams’s cast of characters. With metronomical timing, the performer’s lingering glance from left to right is enough to transform him from one brother to another. Productions don’t often demand you to mourn a character played by an actor still on stage, but this is an effective single-handed tragedy of Greek proportions and, remarkably, a cautionary tale charged with all the vibrancy and complexity of a modern, globalised world.

Black T-Shirt Collection is playing at the National Theatre until 24 April. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre’s website.

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