The Young Vic’s Conundrum is a bafflingly wispy tale of one man’s… what?

·3 min read
Anthony Ofoegbu plays Fidel in Conundrum at the Young Vic - Marc Brenner
Anthony Ofoegbu plays Fidel in Conundrum at the Young Vic - Marc Brenner

Mental health and racism are two of the most widely discussed topics of recent times, so there can be no denying that Conundrum arrives in a stricken theatre sector at an opportune moment. This production from Crying in the Wilderness, a Young Vic Associate Company, was originally scheduled for May 2020 and subsequently lost to lockdown. The tough verdict, however, is that it has not been worth the wait.

The tagline of this piece – a solo, bar a fleeting appearance from a second performer playing a doctor – is “an intimate tale of self-discovery, liberation and bliss”. To whom the bliss belongs remains unclear; it’s certainly not the audience’s, as we endure 75 frustrating minutes with a story that’s barely sketched out. On a stage bare apart from scattered storage boxes, Fidel (Anthony Ofoegbu) sifts through the paper-trail of his life. There are bills, naturally, but also ample letters of rejection for jobs for which he was apparently “over-qualified”, as well as a long-ago exam certificate proudly announcing a string of As.

Yet Fidel is frantic, going on manic, obviously troubled by mental-health issues. Ofoegbu offers an abundance of frenzied physical expression to convey the character’s inner torment, but these wordless sequences drastically outstay their welcome. I longed for more amply fleshed-out details of Fidel’s life, rather than another bout of anguished writhing.

A childhood diary entry provides the most intriguing glimpse into his mind, presumably learnt from the mother of whom he speaks so fondly. “I must be 10 times smarter than all the other children,” it reads. It’s a command rather than an assertion, although it certainly appears to be true as well, given the faultless alacrity with which Fidel, portraying his younger self, defines a string of tricky words. It’s in this section that Ofoegbu’s performance is most affecting, conveying the earnest eagerness of a bright but awkward boy.

Fidel’s mother wanted him to be a doctor, but a careers officer informed him that he had “too many lofty ideas”. So he took his impeccable results and did… What? Paul Anthony Morris, who both writes and directs, leaves us in the dark, but the fact that we next see Fidel in a locked medical institution, receiving high-strength drugs, suggests that it didn’t go well. It’s here that the “liberating self-discovery” comes in, as it slowly dawns upon him that what has been categorised as psychiatric illness is in fact a reaction to systemic racism, from school onwards.

That may well be so, but it’s a sweeping conclusion to draw from such tantalising but insubstantial biographical fragments. Morris should have pushed himself to breathe greater life into a fascinating but stuttering idea. Conundrum is a stubbornly shapeless and meandering piece, and it cries out for more stringent structuring. It would have been to its benefit had Fidel been allowed to expound, and expand, upon all those thoughts. “I know who I am” is his most oft-repeated sentence. If only we did too.

Until Feb 4. Tickets: 020 7922 2922;