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Theatre review: The Fishermen

Blood brother: Valentine Olukoga delivers an
expressive and musical performance as Obembe


The Fishermen

Trafalgar Studios, London ★★★★✩

THIS two-hander, based on Chigozie Obioma’s Booker-nominated novel of the same name, has enjoyed an unstoppable momentum since premiering at Manchester Home a year ago. A stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, a run at London’s Arcola and a UK tour followed, and now it’s in the West End at the bijou Trafalgar Studio 2, which suits the intimacy of Jack McNamara’s production.

Playwright Gbolahan Obisesan has boiled down Obiama’s novel so that just two brothers, Ben and Obembe, who used to go fishing with their dad near their village and who are now reunited as adults after years apart, take turns to act out the story of the prophecy that devastated their family.

At first this is often funny as, on a stage split by a riverine line of metal poles, they imitate their scolding mother and authoritarian father and quibble over whose memory is more accurate. However, it soon becomes clear that the act of reconstructing a story that involves madness and death is also an act of reconciliation — with themselves, each other and their shared bloody history.

Unfortunately, the play is not always easy to follow. The story had plenty of time to breathe on the page but it lacks that ability on the stage. However, you’d have to go some distance to find better acting than you get here from David Alade and Valentine Olukoga, who invest this knotty piece with gutsy physical expressiveness and a rare musicality.

Obisesan’s play is steeped in Nigerian oral storytelling traditions but seeing it in London it’s hard not to also see it as a lament over the cycles of violence that continue to blight young black urban lives.