The Fishermen – Trafalgar Studios, London

Writer: Chigozie Obioma

Director: Jack McNamara

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

As the cream of this year’s Edinburgh shows begin the transfer process to London, a 2018 favourite makes its West End debut. Chigozie Obioma’s 2015 novel The Fishermenmade the Booker Prize shortlist and was adapted for the stage three years later by Gbolahan Obisesan premiering in Manchester before a month-long stint at the Edinburgh Festival. From there a brief run at London’s Arcola Theatre followed last November and now this accomplished 70-minute show has rightly earned a slot at the Trafalgar Studios.

Set in rural Nigeria largely in the mid-1990s, brothers Obembe and Ben are reunited on the banks of the river many years after Obembe’s disappearance where he returns home to a less than enthusiastic reception. As the siblings reminisce about the past a tale of domestic violence, family dramas and unfulfilled dreams is recreated by the brothers. Haunted by the terrible events they must recall can they reconnect the pieces of their fractured relationship?

Obisesan’s adaptation is a model of intense and compact storytelling, slowly revealing a dramatic chain of events in a very short piece of theatre. In adapting Obioma’s acclaimed story as a two-hander, Obisesan retains plenty of the story’s humour as the brothers mimic their family members and neighbours, drawing plenty of laughter from the exaggerated versions of both parents as well as the community interactions which resonant well with the audience.

But the play’s darker forces are never far from the surface and as the narrative unfolds with its numerous plot twists and Macbeth-like question about the deterministic nature of prophesy, retribution and revenge, these themes become increasingly dominant in Jack McNamara’s engaging production. There is an easy flow to The Fishermen, as past and present effortlessly merge with only changes in Amy Mae’s impressive lighting design and overall tone to guide the audience between these two eras. But it is the increasing sense of doom-laden inevitability, a darkening of the mood that helps to maintain momentum.

For all its drama – and there is plenty to be had in this unyielding family saga – Obisesan never loses sight of connection between these two younger brothers, that in reliving their past they are trying to find their way back to one another. Valentine Olukoga reprises his role as Obembe, the elder of the two and in some ways the instigator of this narrative game. Through early impressions of the boys’ father the concept of violence is introduced to the play and Olukoga manages the subtle shift in tone with confidence. It also marks a change in Obembe’s character, and the swaggering young man of the early scenes loses his composure as the past overwhelms him.

David Alade is newer to the production but conveys all of Ben’s nervous anxiety as he is unexpectedly confronted with the family’s shared history and some of the play’s key revelations. Like Olukoga, Alade morphs easily between the various characters Ben embodies including his tragic senior sibling Ikenna, his mother and in a horror-like sequence a local madman Abulu who delivers the prophecy, all of whom he draws with clarity.

The Fishermenwas already a highly accomplished production at its Arcola premiere last year and the intimacy of the smaller Trafalgar Studios space suits the atmospheric storytelling. Perhaps used to slightly larger spaces, the actors occasionally over-amplify which can lose some of the words, while the show’s momentum wanes momentarily after the first dramatic crescendo but soon regains its stride. A well-earned West End appearance for The Fishermenthat many other Edinburgh shows will hope to emulate as the transfer market dominates the weeks ahead.

Runs Until: 12 October 2019 | Image: Robert Day

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