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Review: Martha, Me and My Family at Unity Theatre ****1/2

It’s not particularly easy to find the positives in a pandemic which has decimated lives, communities and economies.

But it’s probably fair to say one is the emergence of the Unity Theatre’s Open Call programme – designed to help Merseyside creatives through the dark days of lockdown but now an annual grant programme supporting the development of new work.

Saphena Aziz was one of those successful in last year’s round of grants, and now the result of that support has come to beautiful, thought-provoking and warm-hearted fruition.

Martha, Me and My Family is an intensely personal – evidently emotionally so at times – and intimate storytelling show which mines Aziz’s own memories and a family history which has its roots thousands of miles away across land and sea.

In Aziz’s own words it’s “stories of family and friendship and an Empire – stories that demand to be told; epic and human.”

Of course, the trick is how you then weave together these strands to create one coherent, eloquent narrative arc.

And Aziz, dramaturg Patrick Hughes and director Julia Samuels have trodden a carefully thought-out path between the humour of Aziz’s gauche teenage years and the trauma of displacement which informs her own heritage.

The youngest of five children of a Guyanese mother despatched to Liverpool to work in a biscuit factory and an Indian merchant seaman father escaping the disaster of partition, Aziz was brought up in a two-up, two-down in Granby Street.

At 17, Motown obsessed and the last to fly the nest, she was offered the opportunity through a friend to become a backing singer for Martha Reeves who was on a tour of the UK and needed a new pair of ‘Vandellas’.

Could this be the start of an adventure and a path to fame and fortune, a way out of an everyday life lived against the backdrop of casual, cruel, diminishing racism (spelt out by Aziz in a bald, record-playing metaphor – “disarm the mechanism and bypass the whole system)?

Or might accompanying Reeves on her own journey not be all it’s cracked up to be?

Aziz is an engaging storyteller and deploys plenty of humour while also providing plenty of food for thought.

The bare staging is backed by a giant screen on which Laura Campbell’s audio and visual design mixes Motown musical moments with images of family documents, and a repeated butterfly motif which – together with a repeated line from Aziz – acts as a punctuation between the near and far-past.

Given a one-off premiere performance in front of a sell-out Unity audience, hopefully Martha, Me and My Family also has a successful future ahead.

Top: Saphena Aziz in Martha, Me and My Family. Photo by Jazamin Sinclair

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