Review: The Fishermen (HOME, Manchester)

Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel is adapted for the stage by Gbolahan Obisesan

Valentine Olukoga (Obembe) and Michael Ajao (Ben) in The Fishermen
Valentine Olukoga (Obembe) and Michael Ajao (Ben) in The Fishermen
© Pamela Raith

A spine of spikes swims across the stage like a stickleback, slicing the space in two. It separates the two brothers of Chigozie Obioma's debut novel from one another: Ben sits behind bars, imprisoned for his part in a man's death; Obembe stands the other side, returned after eight years on the run.

The Fishermen ripples with divisions. Set in Nigeria in the mid-1990s, the country still carrying the scars of the Biafra civil war, it not only pits brothers against each other, but parents against their children, husbands against wives, and neighbours against neighbours. Obioma's fable might stand for the lost promise of an African nation, but it has plenty to say to Britain today.

A family saga, The Fishermen follows four middle-class brothers, the sons of a Nigerian banker who has high hopes for them all. Mr Agwu ascribes each of them a prospective profession: doctor, lawyer, pilot, professor. Instead, led by the eldest Ikenna, the boys take up fishing in a forbidden river, killing time when they should have been studying instead. When word gets back home, their father doling out vicious punishments, it triggers a cycle of revenge that quickly spirals out of control, fulfilling a local vagrant's eerie prophecy of Ikenna's death in the process.

Obioma's story suits the stage to a ‘t', a classical tragedy tinged with the oral tradition. Gbolahan Obisesan's adaptation not only stays true to its style, its storytelling simple but succulent, but teases out its core truth with a smart use of form.

Squeezing the story down to a two-hander – Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga, as Ben and Obembe, recall their shared past by re-enacting their relatives – Obisesan activates a memory tale. Ajao lampoons their mother's mannerisms, summoning her finger-clicking sass as she invokes biblical lessons against her up-tight husband. Olukoga sends up their father's sternness with a furrowed brow that gives way to a lashing fury. They laugh – two siblings joshing around once again – but there's something dehumanising about their acts of impersonation. Just as they fished for sport and killed chickens for show, the Agwu brothers show little respect for other life.

It speaks of collective culpability too, one man's death being the product of many parties' unthinking actions, and of the way we are shaped by the families with carry with us through life. There's a neatness to Obioma's narrative that gives it a moral clarity, as a father's hubristic aspirations for his son's mingle with the prophecy that brings about their downfall, but Jack McNamara's physical production makes its dramatic flashpoints ping: beatings that leave scars on the space, blood that appears out of nowhere, death represented by an empty stage. Amy Mae's lighting carries the mood with chilling moonlights and livid rivers of red.

It still sags slightly, stringing out the path to an inevitable conclusion, and occasional character switches aren't completely clear, but The Fishermen should tighten by the time it reaches the Edinburgh Fringe. When it does, it will be quite the catch.

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