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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Lola Shoneyin, adapted by Rotimi Babatunde
Arcola Theatre and The Elufowoju jr Ensemble
Arcola Theatre (Studio 1)

Centre: Marcy Dolapo Oni as Bolanle and Patrice Nalambana as Baba Segi Credit: Idil Sukan
Jomoké Fashola as Iya Segi and Tania Nwachukwu as Segi Credit: Idil Sukan
Drummers Ayan De First and Usifu Jalloh Credit: Idil Sukan
The company with Patrice Nalambana (centre) as Baba Segi's youngest son Credit: Idil Sukan

Rotimi Babarunde’s lively adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s novel about polygamous Baba Segi and his family is two hours of great fun that feels like a celebration of Nigerian life with its colourful costumes, what sound like traditional Yoruba songs, explosions of dancing choreographed by Kemi Durosinmi and splendid drumming from Ayan De First and Usifu Jalloh (who also play roles).

An opening number has the company entering the empty in-the-round performance space bearing baskets of clothing and props for the show on their heads like market women. It sets a joyful mood even before Patrice Naiambana’s Baba Segi begins his family story by remembering back to when he first met his fourth wife Bolanle over two years ago. She and a friend came by the store where he sold building materials and, while the friend was busy with business, he launched into a blatant chat-up.

He is remarkably successful and you might wonder why when Marcy Dolapo Oni’s pretty Bolanle is a newly graduated from university and he a polygamist with traditional attitudes to women. The answer is revealed a long way into the story but meanwhile she is installed (with her own room) in Segi’s household with formidable wife number one, Jumoké Fashola’s Iya Segi, second wife, timid and gentle Iya Tope (Christina Oshunniyi), and excitably jealous third wife, Iya Femi (Layo-Christina Akinlude).

Though Baba Segi tries to give all four wives appropriate attention, perhaps his newest gets more visits and, though Iya Tope is delighted that she wants to share some of her education, the other two begin to resent her and, when after two years she has not become pregnant, Bolanle finds his attentions becoming mechanical rather than amorous.

Why isn’t she conceiving? She won’t go to the traditional experts so Baba Segi eventually agrees that they will go to the hospital. You may begin to guess where the story is going but director Femi Elufowoju, jr makes one relish each new twist in a story that mingles comic and tragic and makes its own comments on gender relations in a changing traditional society.

It gets stunning performances from the whole cast, especially Marcy Dolapo Oni’s charming Bolanle and solidly centred by Patrice Naiambana who not only gives Baba Segi an endearing gravitas but like the rest of the company doubles in other roles. “I’m playing another role now,” he announces before adopting a posh-sounding English accent, as well shedding his years to be his youngest son Kole having a birthday.

In a play that discusses sex very explicitly, dance plays an important part in presenting it. Older playgoers may remember Bottom’s virility in the famous Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Baba Segi provides an image to cap it: asked for a sperm sample, Baba Segi claims, “I don’t even know how to hold my thing,” but his choreographed explosion sets new records!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton