Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
  Opened 21 May, 2009

Two new plays about west African upheavals in as many nights. But whereas Matt Charman’s The Observer at the National Theatre cannot escape its European perspective (which is partly the point), Oladipo Agboluaje’s play here is far more specific and, if this doesn’t itself sound too patronising, authentic.
This is a prequel to Agboluaje’s 2006 piece The Estate, and explains much of the landscape of that other work. The later antagonism between Chief Adeyemi’s widow and the successful pastor who buys the family estate has its foundations here: in the Lagos of 1989, both are servants in the chief’s household and are engaged, but driver Pakimi has little success in raising the money for them to set up home together, leading maid Helen to take desperate measures. Both younger son Soji’s naïve idealism and his taste for the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti are explicated here, as we see him agitating for the release of an opposition politico. And both the chief and the first wife of the title are shown to be at best unreliable role models, the former unable to keep it in his trousers, the latter demonstrating old-order snobbery and a domestic tyranny over her children and servants.
Not that this play is at all dependent on The Estate for either understanding or enjoyment. It is an almost Chekhovian portrait of a family and a social stratum which fail to realise that they will be, not washed clean away by the tide of events, but severely eroded. This is a Nigeria in transition from its 1980s military regime to civilian rule, but in which the generals have learnt venality from their civilian predecessors, so that the chief has to crawl to them for building contracts. Another similarity to Chekhov is the blend of comedy and melancholy: there are many laughs in these two hours, but the final act is audacious in the unmodulated extent of its disillusionment and pessimism. Even scene changes show the range of moods in the play, with entr’actes from a hilarious army dance routine accompanied by Kuti’s anti-military song “Zombie” to the mob “necklacing” of a thief. Femi Elufowoju Jr’s production for his Tiata Fahodzi company is fluid and pacy, and Jude Akuwudike and Antonia Okonma give strong leads as the chief and his wife.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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