How Nigeria Became: A Story, and a Spear that didn’t Work, at the Unicorn Theatre (review)

This has been a great week for the Unicorn Theatre, winning the highly regarded Peter Brook Empty Space Awards on 4th November.  By chance, we were lucky enough to visit the theatre this weekend to watch How Nigeria Became: A Story, and a Spear that didn’t Work.  We had such a fun and interesting afternoon.

Unfortunately I cannot urge you to go and see this production, as we went on the last day of its run. But for a quick and early summary – the children and I really enjoyed it, you ought to look out for it when it shows again, and in the meantime you must go and visit the Unicorn Theatre.  What a gem.

I’m ashamed to say that, despite its massively convenient location on Tooley Street, London Bridge, I have not visited the Unicorn Theatre before on this site.

Way back when the Unicorn was first conceived by its founder Caryl Jenner, it was a mobile theatre, and at one point it used to stage its shows within the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street.  I went there as a child and have very vague but very fond memories of it.  I am now so happy to have reacquainted myself with this wonderful place and I am going to return, and soon.  Here are some photos of the light space, the floor tiles, the Nigerian Monarchs and the Quentin Blake illustrations (click on a photo to enlarge it).

To get back to the play, it was written and directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, who was born in Nigerian and brought up in London. I was especially keen to take the children to see it as their father is of the same heritage. What I didn’t know was that both men have some even more crucial details in common. Both were born in Ibadan, Nigeria, both were brought up in South East London, both have names meaning great riches of some kind and (leading up to the pinnacle of importance) both are Gooners (for the uninitiated, this means Arsenal fans).  The wealth we are still waiting to see, but I fully approve of the optimistic Nigerian baby-naming practice and can’t wait to enjoy the full fruit of the wealth. Anytime now would be good!

For all that this is a children’s show, Obisesan does not steer away from serious issues.  Aimed at Unicorn’s ‘medium-sized’ age of 7-12 years old, I was surprised to find all ages of impeccably behaved children watching the play and seeming by their laughter and attention to be enjoying it.  The play is set in 1914, not just the year the First World War broke out, but also the year when the Northern and Southern Nigeria Protectorates were unified into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. We are introduced to Herbert Ogunde and his troupe of actors. They receive a visit from a messenger from the Lord. To Herbert’s dismay, not that Lord!  Charles comes on behalf of Lord Lugard, Governor of Nigeria (a new unified entity named by his wife) who requests a performance to commemorate the unification of the two areas. According to the short trailer which appears online, the play is about ‘how stories are told, how virtue is found, and how histories are shaped’.  It has themes of identity, colonialism, sexism.

This sounds heavy. In fact the play is very funny! The actors were all entertaining. Tunji Fulani (who played Hector) and Rita Balogun (Oduduwa and Innocence) were my favourite, and my son loved Christian Roe, who played the colonial English messenger Charles. Everybody enjoyed the final scene when Charles joins in with the African dancing to great (and yes very clichéd) comic effect.

Credit: Unicorn Theatre

The run may be over but I look forward to more work from Obisesan and the cast.

As for the Unicorn Theatre, I can’t wait to get back there.

You can visit the website here to buy tickets for any upcoming shows.
When you get there, you too can add your name and age on the measuring wall in return for a donation for £1.

Disclosure: I was given free tickets to see How Nigeria Became for the purpose of this review.  All opinions are my own.
All photos taken by me apart from the production photograph which is copyright Unicorn Theatre.

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6 thoughts on “How Nigeria Became: A Story, and a Spear that didn’t Work, at the Unicorn Theatre (review)

  1. The Unicorn is one of my favourite theatres of all time. I love the space, and I’ve seen some wonderful, beautifully unusual stuff there – and it sounds as though this performance falls into that category.

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