Stovepipe

Bush Theatre Unit 18 (West 12 Shopping Centre), 3 March – 26 April 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

It’s all too easy to remain detached from the subject of Iraq. It’s thousands of miles away, it no longer makes daily headlines and the combined British and American military is gradually washing its hands of the place.

Stovepipe aims to pick us up off the sidelines and deposit us bodily into the midst of the relief effort. Based out of the Bush Theatre’s new bar venue, Unit 18, the production transforms the boiler rooms and dead spaces below the West 12 shopping complex into a promenade performance space.

Designer takis’s sets are nothing short of lavish – and little wonder, with Hightide, the Bush and the National Theatre all backing the play in some capacity. There’s a conference centre, a hotel room, a café bar, a war-torn city street and more, and every new environment is further evidence of high production values and attention to detail. With the audience free to roam, everything – from the posters promoting fictional investors in the rebuilding programme to the papers in the office in-tray – must stand up to close scrutiny, and it does.

The performances, too, are consistently convincing and engaging. Shaun Dooley doesn’t quite reconcile British mercenary Alan’s caring and violent sides into a unified character, but as our guide it’s important he remain sympathetic, and keeping the lid on the violence helps achieve that. Eleanor Matsuura, meanwhile, infuses every female character in the show with distinct but equally potent varieties of strength, independence and (occasionally) warmth, in the hands-down best performance of the night. As Sargon Yelda’s Arabic interpreter puts it, “the Americans have a phrase: ball-breaker.”

So why does Stovepipe still fail to suck the audience in?

Maybe it’s because the design is too slick. The bar and office furniture looks like it was bought yesterday, brand new. Maybe it’s because the one time we actually visit Iraq is the one time the staging is necessarily representative rather than realistic, and the rest of our time is spent in Amman, Jordan, a staging post for forays into Iraq; like Alan, we feel like we’re between places, waiting for the real action to begin.

Or maybe it’s because of the play’s scattergun chronology, which flashes backwards and forwards with nearly every scene and offers very few narrative signposts to help us find our place in Alan’s story. Trusting the audience’s intelligence rather than patronising them is always the right call, but in this case the complexity of the plot requires us to keep disengaging from the moment in order to look at the bigger picture and see where the latest piece slots in – and getting lost in the moment is what allows us to care.

Written by Adam Brace

Crew includes Michael Longhurst (director) and takis (designer)

Cast includes Christian Bradley (Andre/Grif), Shaun Dooley (Alan), Niall MacGregor (Eddy/Harry), Eleanor Matsuura (Carolyn/Masha/Sally) and Sargon Yelda (Saad/Marty/Rami)

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