Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters

Image by National Theatre

Daniel Nelson

The first part of Inua Elliams' Nigerian re-working of Chekhov's Three Sisters is s barnstorming success.

The National Theatre is filled with a gallery of colourful Nigerian characters - arguing, joking, joshing, loving, sparring, despairing, philosophising, drinking, yearning, teasing.

Their personal stories are played out in eastern Nigeria immediately before and during the civil war in the late 1960s.

If you don’t know about the ethnic and political convulsions that threatened to tear the country apart, fear not – the family’s funny, fractious, affectionate (and not so affectionate) conversations are not only about love, loneliness, sex, marriage, work, boredom and a longing to return to the sophistication of the capital (“I wish Owerri were more like Lagos”), but also reflect and explain the country’s ethnic and political convulsions.

A member of the audience squeezing past to get to her seat told me, “It’s bringing back history I didn’t know about.”

The humour, drama, clashing personalities, buffeted by the gathering clouds of conflict, beautifully acted, dramatically staged, the whole ensemble supercharged by the gasps, oohs and aahs of the audience, bring the end of the first act to an exuberant crescendo.

“It will be hard for the second half to match that,” I said to the Nigerian in the next seat.

Sadly, it proved beyond writer, cast and director.

The momentum subsides as Ellams tries to tie up too many individual stories, to encapsulate the horror of a war that gave birth to the phrase “Biafra babies” and set the tone for years of NGO fundraising appeals, as well as driving home the political message of Britain’s role in backing the Federal army in order to hold on to Nigerian oil concessions.

Of course, a change of pace and mood is inevitable as the fervour that gives birth to Biafra is crushed by the new state’s decline and fall, which is mirrored in the lives of the sisters and of the family house as it falls under the sway of their brother’s cunning, ambitious Yoruba wife. (Yoruba viewers should be prepared for some anti-Yoruba, anti-Nigerian sentiment: this is an Ibo’s-eye-view of the failed secession.) Even so, the second act needs restructuring, to give less space to events and more space to Ellams’ characters.

So, no, Nigeria’s Three Sisters is not perfect: but it’s great to see a rich slice of Nigerian life on the British stage - a brilliant, bravura effort, fully deserving of its whoops and standing ovation.

 + Talks and events: 6 DecA Short History of the Biafran War, 6pm; 7 JanSurviving Biafra: A Nigerwife's Story, 6pm; Three Sisters Student Conference, 10.30am; 7 FebExploring Three Sisters and Chekhov, 2pm; 7 FebWriter Inua Ellams and Director Nadia Fall, 6pm; 14 FebActors in Conversation, 3pm


* Three Sisters is at the National Theatre, Southbank, SE1, until 19 February. Info:



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