The road to hell, they say, is pared with good intentions. That is the key theme of Adam Brace’s fascinating but frustrating multi-layered new play, They Drink it in the Congo (Almeida Theatre London) directed by Michael Longhurst.
It is one of the most dangerous places in the world and a country that is the home to the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. Writer Adam Brace takes us into the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the West’s well intentioned, but muddle-headed, attempts to do something about it.
Stef is the newly appointed co-ordinator of a festival of Congolese culture intended to raise awareness of the country’s problems. As the daughter of a wealthy white Kenyan farmer, she also has some private guilt to assuage. Stef is determined to involve the Congolese community, which is not easy as it consists of activists resentful of Britain’s exploitation of their country’s resources, an exiled terrorist and one or two illegal immigrants. Into this minefield of racial and political sensitivities, Stef ropes in politically incorrect PR consultant Tony, an old flame who cracks jokes about the dodgy TV ads for the tropical fruit juice Um Bongo (hence the play’s title), to help her and Congolese expert Anne-Marie, but conflicting opinions beset her. Could it be that the Congolese aren’t the best people to get involved in a festival about the Congo?
Brace has bitten off more than he can chew here, not least white liberal and post-colonial guilt, this virtually three-hour drama emerges as exuberant, sprawling, infuriating, occasionally confusing, and lacking of clear focus. The political points however, are offset by welcome shafts of black comedy. Within the gags, Bruce makes sure we get a revealing insight into the country itself and the current problems it faces: from its main mining resource – Colton – which is used in our mobile phones, screens and tablets to the use of rape as a weapon in the civil war.
Michael Longhurst, in-the-round production has an exceptionally hard to watch central section, which becomes the pivot for the two sides in the play, as we witness what Stef experienced when she was working out there. In the second half, with a live band onstage all the screens turn into deformed palettes, with nails protruding out of them. They are reminders of every individual’s part in the Congo’s problems. Accompanying the protagonist onstage throughout is a Congolese man in a bright pink suit who acts as a kind of conscience figure and later, is brought more sharply into the drama.
Fiona Button gives a convincing performance as Stef, letting all the horror of her experience, as well as her underlying guilt and shame slowly bubble up to the surface. Good support is provided by Richard Goulding as Tony and Anna-Maria Nabirye as Anne-Marie.
But is Bruce’s argument that it’s best if no one tries to do anything to help, for fear of causing inadvertent offence? I cannot believe that is the answer.
They Drink it in the Congo
Is playing at the Almeida Theatre London until 1 October 2016
Box office: 020 7359 4404Last modified: September 8, 2016