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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

waiting for a train at the bus stop

Mwansa Phiri

Genre: Feminist Theatre, New Writing, Solo Show, Theatre

Venue: Summerhall


Low Down

Chilufya doesn’t know whether she is coming or going. Which makes perfect sense since her name literally means ‘the lost one’ and lost is exactly how she’s felt most of her life. Struggling with low self-esteem and a waning sense of self, she finds herself being drawn into a dangerously controlling relationship. Interweaving spoken-word theatre with Zambian oral traditions this dark comedy is a solo show exploring coercive control.


’17 minutes. That’s how long it takes to die by train. I looked it up once’. This is the intriguing opening to a powerful solo show by Mwansa Phiri. The writing embraces monologue, spoken-word poetry and Zambian oral storytelling traditions to tell a difficult story about coercive control within the specific expectations of African and Caribbean culture.

Chilufya (Chili), struggles with low self-esteem and finds herself being drawn into a controlling relationship which only compounds her waning sense of self. The name Chilufya means ‘the lost one’ – which underlines and reinforces her journey.

In some ways this is a universal story, women find themselves in coercive controlling relationships all over the world. The themes of low self-esteem, others thinking the partner is a charming man – at the same time it is a very specifically African story, drawing as it does, on the customs and culture of her Zambian family and in highlighting the higher rates of domestic violence experienced by African and Caribbean women.

This is not an autobiographical piece, as part of her research, Mwansa Phiri attended training delivered by Sistah Space, a London-based domestic violence charity that provides specialist services to women of African and Caribbean heritage experiencing domestic and sexual abuse. Their website reports that 86% of African and/or Caribbean heritage women in the UK have either been directly a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse, or know a family member who has been assaulted. A situation compounded by poor response and support from many of the mainstream agencies.

The writing is nuanced, funny, and perceptive but running just below the surface is always that lack of self-esteem, the vulnerability that allows Paul to exploit her. It is a piece that comes to the boil slowly (as coercive relationships do, gradually isolating the victim from family and support) as she tries to get her flat tidy, to stop wasting time on men who only disappoint against a cultural background of family and social pressures to find that perfect man and settle down. So, when she does meet the apparently perfect man it is impossible to then admit that, really, he isn’t.

Phiri creates the world of her story with a few chairs, a basket of costume items that gradually end up all over the stage reinforcing the sense of being out of control. The story is supported by a subtle lighting design that includes a strip of LED lights across the front of the stage representing the rail tracks that give their name to the title. Sparing use of video introduce us to the language of her poetry.

The performance is flawless and beautifully paced – one moment the words are running away with her, the next reflective and thoughtful. Gradually the tone shifts and we see the destructive nature of coercive control as it eats away at Chilufya, as she talks of taking up less and less space, living in a body ‘that is no longer my own’. Her flat and the scattered clothing become a metaphor for her inner chaos as she protests that everything is fine. Physically we see her shift in relationship to those around her, one moment confident, the next shrinking into herself.

The end comes a little suddenly which, given the layered and intricate journey so far, feels a little abrupt but may simply be a victim of the very tight timetables of Edinburgh.

Over this show is one of those rare productions where every element comes together to support the story at the heart of it.