Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way before I start. Last week’s Friday Play on Radio Four was directed and based on early childhood experiences by Christiana Ebohon, who’s an old college friend of mine. She let me know about it in her Christmas card to X&HTowers. It’s almost certain that if she hadn’t told me it was on, I wouldn’t have tuned in. I barely listen to radio any more, least of all drama.
That, it would appear, is my loss, because if Ob’owa is any indicator of quality, there’s a lot of good work simply flying under my radar.
Ob’owa tells the story of Francesca and her younger brother Joseph. We first meet them in Peckham, sometime in the 70’s. They’re good kids, smart, funny, obsessed with the Bay City Rollers. They live with their mum, a divorcee. Dad still has visitation rights, which he uses to kidnap the two kids, whisking them off to Nigeria to live with his family. Their grandfather, his three wives, and their many children.
Ob’owa works on many levels. It’s a story about belonging, home and family. But it’s also a fish-out-of-water tale. Francesca and Joseph struggle to cope in a world where if you want meat for dinner, you have to go out in the yard and kill something. The wives react in horror when Joseph tries to help in the kitchen (“women’s work!”). School is tough, and worst of all there’s no telly.
The story could be unrelentingly grim. There are scenes of spousal abuse, musings on racism on both sides of the fence (ob’owa means “white”, a term that is used to taunt the two English kids both in the playground and the family compound) and a teeth-gritting moment where Francesca bravely submits to ritual scarring. But Christiana and writer Moya O’Shea have a light touch with the material, and the funny and sweet moments are a nice balance to the drama. The 70’s references come thick and fast (I snorted particularly hard at the jab at the truly dreadful Love Thy Neighbour), and the play is both pacy and absorbing. It’s also very well acted, with the kids in particular, Rhiannon Baccus and Jayden Jean-Paul-Denis giving sterling performances. Aural texture, recorded partly on location in Nigeria gives the whole thing the weight and heft of reality.
Ob’owa is a sharp and fearless look at the serious subject of child abduction. It would be easy to slip into hysterical pontification or cheap drama when telling a tale like this. Christiana and Moya do neither, treading a precise line, seeing both the humour and the heartbreak in the situation into which Francesca and Joseph are dropped. It’s great storytelling, and a very worthwhile excuse to simply switch off the telly for a bit and be told a story.
Ob’owa is available on the BBC iPlayer until 10pm this Friday. Do yourself a favour and cock an ear at it here.