This is a strange and startling production, from start to finish. Yomi Ṣode’s hour-long monologue features a man addressing his absent cousin about a family secret and builds immense power as it fans out to a story of family grief, presented specifically as black trauma, but with a universality too.
Junior (David Jonsson) begins talking to Ade almost in mid-sentence. Ade’s mother – Big Mummy – is in a hospice, living out the final stage of cancer which she and Ade have kept hidden from the larger Nigerian British family.
Junior initially flits from one impressionistic scene to another, Ṣode’s script not immediately explaining itself, before it lands as a play about death, mourning and young masculinity shaped by matriarchal influence.
Expertly directed by Miranda Cromwell, it never once feels lethargic, though it has pools of stillness weighted with heavy emotion. Jonsson does not rush through these, nor indulge in them, but times them to a perfect pitch so that his story is about the bewilderment of grief but also the depth of love between these two men, and delivered without sentimentality.
“Watching Big Mummy like this,” says Junior, as he describes in detail the days leading up to her last breath and the news, when it comes, of her death, which pulls “the spine out of our bodies”.
Jonsson has a sure, controlled presence and animates not just his inner voice but those of the aunties around him, even Ade’s quiet voice and Big Mummy’s bigger one. Despite the subject matter, the play comes with playful moments cocooned in poetic language; Junior’s pleasure in overeating contains mischief; the rush hour is a fast-flowing crowd in which he plays Tetris.
Its impact is bound up with sensational stagecraft. The set has a desk at the back occupied by the composer Femi Temowo , whose music runs in tandem with Ṣode’s script, syncopating at times, bringing charm and comedy at others. It does not sugar Junior’s words but lightens or changes the mood masterfully. When Big Mummy is near her end, a single string of the guitar is pulled in time to a heartbeat; and when Junior thinks back to his early childhood in Nigeria, lilting music accompanies that memory.
Paule Constable’s lighting and Ravi Deepres’s video design work marvels together too: projections are illuminated against the back wall and morph from scratches to a thicket of trees, while drifting sea waves give the illusion of a stage in motion.
A woman’s death and her nephew’s grief is not the most original or eventful of storylines but it is made big and innovative in its telling, and in its tremendous weight of emotion.
• and breathe… is at the Almeida, London, until 10 July.