Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

The Fishermen

Chigozie Obioma, adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan
New Perspectives Theatre in association with HOME
HOME, Manchester
19 July 2018 to 28 July 2018

 

The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma’s tragic tale of a family destroyed by superstition and misunderstandings, makes a devastating transition from page to stage.

The Nigerian Agwu family are aspirational, with the father planning the professions into which his four sons will enter while they are still children. But boys will be boys and while their father is away at work the children play at being fishermen on a particularly dangerous stretch of the river. A local eccentric, who may be mentally unstable, makes a prophecy that is so unnerving the boys are drawn into a web of events that pushes them towards fulfilling the prediction.

Adaptations of novels to the stage rarely work as there is the perceived need to build descriptive passages from the text into the dialogue, which then becomes unrealistic. Adaptor Gbolahan Obisesan has a deep understanding of what will work on stage and dares to strip the novel down to its pure essence. Events are filtered through the perceptions of the two younger brothers Ben (Michael Ajao) and Obembe (Valentine Olukoga) so that the raw emotive power of the story is retained even if the descriptions may be trimmed.

Director Jack McNamara creates an oppressive atmosphere suitable for a Greek tragedy that eliminates the need for extraneous dialogue. We are in Heart of Darkness territory.  Lighting is subdued and great use is made of Amelia Jane Hankin’s marvellously adaptable set. The set comprises a series of metal poles jammed into the ground, meandering around the stage to become a maze, a barrier between the brothers, a jail cell and a source of potential weapons.  At key points, the gullies in the set turn red like a river of blood. The play runs about 80 minutes and is taut as a bowstring without a wasted moment, adding to the sense of characters rushing towards a destiny they cannot avoid.

Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga bring to life a full family and village members but it is their enactment of the two brothers that is especially memorable. Valentine Olukoga gives the impression of Obembe not only as a bit of a tearaway but also something of a sneak. The brothers do not hear the prophecy that pushes them to destruction - it is reported by Obembe - and there is slyness in Valentine Olukoga that suggests he could be capable of misreporting the statement as a prank. Michael Ajao shows the full emotional cost endured by the Agwu family. With his slender frame, arms hanging loose and haunted eyes gazing out at the audience there is no need for words to show the mother’s descent into near-madness or the guilt Ben carries.

Anyone who doubts that novels can be successfully adapted to the stage should rush to catch The Fishermen at HOME. So too should anyone who just wants to see a stunningly good play.

Reviewer: David Cunningham