Just the Tonic at Marlin’s Wynd
August 1-23 (16:05)
Material: Delivery: Laughs: Room:
Njambi McGrath’s Accidental Coconut is an intelligent, charming and timely piece of stand-up. In her discussion of the complexities of her Kenyan identity, which has been particularly influenced by the nation’s colonial history, McGrath effortlessly guided the audience through an interesting, if sometimes slightly unfocused, hour of stand-up. A major strength of McGrath’s act was her likeability as a performer, where I found myself almost immediately rooting for her. For a show that broached several contentious subjects, including popular, contemporary attitudes about immigration, Brexit, and the complexities of Britain as an ex-empire, her stage presence was amiable, and well-suited to a show that was so socially and racially charged. Encompassing references from the Berlin Conference of the 19th century to Brexit, McGrath’s comic style was a perfect vehicle for communicating an array of complex analyses on British and Kenyan cultures, and showing how the spectre of colonialism continues to haunt African identities today.
In her comic performance, set amid current cries of a by-gone empire, McGrath stylishly refuted a series of aggrandised, honeyed platitudes about historic British power with an enjoyable, resolute confidence. In dealing with the cliché that the British Empire seized other people’s land through the power of their pleasantries and abundant cups of tea, she eviscerated this by underlining how unutterably merciless the British Empire was in its use of military power, embellishing her historic dramatisations by adorning an overbearingly posh, and very funny, regal accent. I also found her segments on Brexit interesting, and her comparison between demands for British sovereignty from Brussels that stood in sharp contrast to the less accommodated demands for Kenyan statehood during its time as a colony. She explored these ideas in a way that not only underlined her own experiences as a Kenyan, but more presciently, her exasperation over how these warped forms of imperial nostalgia continue to permeate contemporary Britain, and the way they continue to disfigure debates over immigration. The difficulty of projecting these ideas effectively through stand-up comedy can’t be underestimated, so to McGrath’s credit, she maintained a great balancing act between being likeable and funny, yet stimulating at the same time.
For all of the show’s many strengths however, parts of it felt a little undeveloped, and not particularly well-placed in terms of the show’s overall focus and narrative. And while McGrath’s immense likeability as a performer meant that the audience largely stayed with her throughout Accidental Coconut, at times I felt like their patience wore a little thin, and couldn’t help but feel some of the crowd started lagging in the final third of the show. Furthermore, it felt like there was more of an emphasis on ensuring the social, racial and political conclusions of the show landed effectively than making sure the show was funny, or to be more exact, as funny as McGrath’s genuinely strong energy as a performer could have possibly delivered.
This is undeniably a difficulty in stand-up performances that are as charged as McGrath’s show (to borrow from the comic scholar Rebecca Krefting), and to her absolute credit, she delivered whole sections of the show extremely well. But overall, Accidental Coconut felt like a show caught between comic and non-comic performance, deviating at times between what felt more like a humorous guest lecture at an academic conference than a stand-up show. Accidental Coconut is a complex comic performance that sets an ambitious and commendable standard for itself in tackling the vitally important racial and socio-political questions which McGrath places at the heart of it, but I feel that until she addresses these deficits, she will continue to do a disservice to herself as an extremely amiable and funny comedian.