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FringeReview UK 2016

They Drink it in the Congo

Almeida Theatre

Genre: Comedic, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Almeida Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Michael Longhurst, Adam Brace’s second full-length play, eagerly anticipated, is premiered at the Almeida. Jon Bausor’s design shifts tectonically from versatile conference space to a seismic yawn in its middle with flagstones pulled away. Michael Henry’s music direction is pivotal.


Adam Brace’s second full-length play, eagerly anticipated, is premiered at the Almeida directed by Michael Longhurst, where Jon Bausor’s design shifts tectonically from versatile conference space to a seismic yawn in its middle with flagstones pulled away and a traumatic warzone visited, just before the close of the first act. Michael Henry’s music direction is pivotal, not simply the live band but in a range of musically-pointed exclamation marks in the drama.


Brace’s hugely ambitious piece – the text is 164 pages – is whipped along with rapid dissolves and shifts by Longhurst so its stranded complexity never becomes turgid or bewildering.


Its heart is relatively simple. The play’s title references an un-pc ad-jingle insensitively referenced by Tony the ex of Stef – who’s devising a consciousness-raising Congolese festival in London. Operating out of an MP’s office, she needs Tony’s PR skills, quick learning and as becomes clear his kind-hearted attempts to do some good; she’s ruthless enough to know he still loves her, generous enough to realize when she returns it.


If Tony and Stef have never let go of each other, Stef’s never let go of her past either, revisited graphically when this Kenya-born Cambridge-educated daughter of the empire compounds her guilt by visiting the warzone of the Democratic Republic of Congo fighting in time to come across horrific rape and mutilation; this forms the climax to the first act where Stef’s traumatised response to this ten-year conflict fully humanizes her.


Her compensatory response is however relentless, making the political (however neutrally-nuanced) very personal for less than purely philanthropic reasons. Stef’s well-meaning muddle strands serious consequences, but Brace consciously avoids a simplistic moral tale – or glib tragedy. He makes Stef appealing in a naggingly ardent way, even redemptive.


Richard Goulding’s sympathetic Tony too, swiftly recovers from his gaffe-prone beginnings and becomes involved rather than complicit. His having to take over from Stef at two-minutes’ notice allows Brace to almost tweet the country’s history, interrupted by competing conference voices, allowing wit and identity to bounce off the walls in one of the more attractive speed-reads of its kind.


One on side Stef – played with brightness turned up exactly right by Fiona Button – fights off Jenny, one of the roles taken by Kirsty Besterman, here dubiously critical friend and NGO supremo who Stef beat to her job. Besterman doubles as nurse Meredith, and Carmen a war reporter. In these roles Besterman eyeballs Stef’s assertions, challenging her motives more keenly than anyone else at first.


Anne-Marie Mweka’s character is more considered. A survivor of the Congolese civil wars Brace spent time investigating, she’s wary of being used, with good reason. Anna-Maria Nabirye moves convincingly from wariness to commitment through threats to a rapid response to late revelations, anchoring each phase in a authentic dignity which shifts abruptly when confronting her daughter. If Brace seems respectful here – and Anne-Marie’s more than two-dimensioned – he throws that off elsewhere.


Throughout all this a hatted, then significantly un-hatted figure, Oudry, doubles as a cerise-suited mobile phone/digital voice and later as something altogether more personal. In a role looking uneasily incongruous to begin with, Sumi Rimi’s different pressures on the same character earn their revelation. his pink suit now torn also appears with stuck-on mobiles (Bausor also designs costumes). It’s the rare metals making them that fuel both war and world interest; we’re complicit every time we use one.


Brace – with Longhurst and voice coach Zabarjad Salam – have devised ingenious ways for Congolese, which absorbs French and other European tongues, to be represented. For instance when alone in London Congolese is signified as visible in bright surtitles where the actors speak English in south London accents. Elsewhere it’s spoken with authentic intonation including the Congo scene.


Objections to the festival emerge early in the shape of Richie Campbell’s incisive and savvy Luis and remain with death threats to Stef, Tony and more damaging ones to Anne-Marie. Despite the flip-flopping of her Welsh MP boss Stef stubbornly refuses to call it off, haunted by what she feels is her moment of failure in the Congo itself. Red paint sprayed on Stef symbolically suggests a personal faultline has no place: either as discrete thinking or a discretionary choice. Indiscretion isn’t the best part of valour either.


Not that Stef’s the only butt here. Brace has the confidence to be even-handed when dishing ridicule. The scene when Luis bamboozles all his friends including Anne-Marie’s brother into a faux-army’s stamping on the photograph of the controversial (still current) president is the great comic set-piece to balance the shock of the Congo’s. As four men continually change trousers to enact a whole army, Stef bursts in when their trousers and indeed dignity trips around the men’s ankles, but it sets up the pivotal confrontation between her and Luis.


There’s deft comedy in various meetings where western assumptions simply scramble other cultures: a war-reporter’s photographs she’s happy to offload are tainted; jokes about Ugandan women turn offensive. Each trip-wire to the differences between huge populations layers itself. There’s no need for impossible, rather painstaking, lifelong efforts to resolution.


Anne-Marie’s father’s wake sets yet another confrontation. Brace is adept at moving on and off a swirl of characters including bodyguard Kevin eating between shifts, affirming identity and man-handling Luis. Longhurst ensures all bustles fall out clear; miniatures such as immigration officials swooping are shuttered with a lens-clear blink.


This is a courageous play, courageously realized and directed. Acting is necessarily telegraphed but the leads etch their authentic antipathies and to a small extent British incomprehension, which includes a dangerous lack of self-knowledge. If it’s Button’s central character whose journey we uneasily identify with, and Button’s shivery ambivalence the richest seam, Brace seems himself reluctant to replicate her appropriations, setting his empathic limits before they become intrusive. It could take huge ambition and experience, not to say permission, to push further. It’s knowing that Brace wishes to impart, with a play that’s clearly taken part of his life and opinions with it.