The Fishermen – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Chigozie Obioma

Director: Jack McNamara

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

A show that transfers from the Edinburgh Festival can look very different in the harsh London glare, but there are some that remain a bit special. In 2015 Chigozie Obioma published his debut novel about prophecy and family catastrophe, and director Jack McNamara immediately saw its potential, recruiting Gbolahan Obiesan to adapt it for the stage. The Fishermen debuted in Manchester before a longer run in Scotland and returns (following an Initial week-long run in Sept) to the Arcola Theatre.

After eight years apart brothers Obembe and Ben are reunited not far from the family home where a terrible tragedy once forced them apart. Swamped by memories of their childhood, the brothers recall their parents’ ambition for them when all the boys wanted to do was fish in the forbidden river. But as a madman’s prediction comes to pass, the family is left reeling from events that will scar them all.

Obioma’s multi-character story is neatly boiled down by Obisesan to a 75-minute two-hander in which Ben and Obembe recreate the voice and movement of everyone they knew. Set in Nigeria during the 1990s and early 2000s, the plot layers memories with increasing complexity, as past events are embodied with even earlier scenes recalled within them, without ever losing the essential simplicity of the piece.

The Fishermen begins with siblings happily reunited with plenty of humorous impersonations of family members and locals, introducing the audience to the wider cast. It is not until some way into the production that the almost Shakespearean inevitability of fate becomes the driving force. McNamara gives that remaining part of the show a faster-paced intensity as events snowball, referencing notions of possession, spirits and evil that must be purged, a pull between old and new Africa for boys in the transition to adulthood.

One of The Fishermen’smost intriguing aspects is never quite knowing if what we see are memories of events or recreations by Obembe and Ben – it certainly begins that way – suggesting their own possession by the past along with the grief and guilt it provoked. It is still a family story, so these scenes also provide plenty of texture, not just the affection between the four original brothers and the once carefree childhood they enjoyed, but also the relationship with their political father who controlled with flogging and discipline before absenting himself from their lives.

Michael Ajao’s Ben was the brother left behind and retains a degree of resentment towards the returning Obembe, but as the consequences of their trauma come to light, Ajao unfurls all the pain and anguish it caused in a powerful final scene. Ajoa also plays the affectionate family matriarch with comic flair and the troubled local who accidentally sets events in motion with his prediction, although intriguingly we never know if his interpretation is merely the wild imagination of a young boy.

Valentine Olukoga is full of external lightness as Obembe, bringing the ease of the outside world with him to the small town he once knew. But the past is inescapable, and Olukoga suggests considerable fear and remorse as it all comes to life around him once again, while also playing his own father and a number of the other locals.

The multiple characters in The Fishermen are not always as clear as they could be, particularly the four brothers, while occasionally events move so fast the timeline of who is doing what and when is momentarily hazy, yet on Amelia Jane Hankin’s symbolic set the emotional impact is always clear. Chigozie Obioma may already have a Booker Prize nomination to his name, but now he has hit play as well.

Runs until 1 December 2018 | Image: Pamela Raith

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