Pros: Transports its audience to a little-known and horrifying place
Cons: Slightly too long, slightly too much rambling, and slightly too keen to have a pop at everyone
“First visit to #Kinshasa #DRC as FCO Minister responsible for Africa. A great country with great potential.” MP Tobias Ellwood’s tweet popped up in my timeline just the day after I saw They Drink It In The Congo at the Almeida Theatre. The day before, I would have skimmed past without a second thought, but writer Adam Brace had made me look at the wound that is the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, and suddenly that two-line tweet was laden with significance: with good intentions, with caution and perhaps with a degree of guilt.
The play’s rather flimsy conceit is that a Congolese cultural festival is being organised to raise awareness of the situation in the DRC. The festival’s organiser, who is traumatised by an earlier visit to the country, and uneasy about a trust fund cultivated in Africa by her white father, becomes maniacally driven to make the event happen, despite death threats and the risk of deepening divisions in the London Congolese diaspora. Brace is careful to avoid giving any of the characters a winning argument; they are all motivated by a deep sense of horror at the state of the DRC and outrage that the rest of the world is seemingly so oblivious, but their attempts to right a massive global wrong are inept and lead them to commit their own, smaller, local wrongs. Just as the situation in DRC defies simple explanation, so Brace’s play underlines the ambiguity that makes inaction seem the safest option.
Where the play does fall down is that none of the characters are particularly believable or, with the possible exception of Anne-Marie, particularly admirable. The large cast double-up with great skill and energy, but even their best efforts can’t bring depth to characters that are written as comic ciphers. It also walks a very fine and sometimes questionable line in alternating horror with humour that is sometimes dark and sometimes just daft. After scenes of rape and slave labour it feels slightly wrong to be laughing at a karate joke, but in a way the laughter is both reward and incentive for listening.
They Drink It In The Congo is unashamedly didactic; in two hours it brings vividly to life the country’s violent, terrifying present and attempts to explain how colonialism, the CIA and mobile phones have all contributed to the status quo. At the same time, Jon Bausor (Design), Jack Knowles (Lighting) and Giles Thomas (Sound) deliver some fantastically theatrical moments and really do transport us from the Circle Line to the dark heart of Africa. It is impossible not to be impressed by a production that takes on such a complex, important and little-understood issue with such brio. As her festival plans fall apart, Stef the earnest organiser ploughs on, convinced that any small thing she can do to raise the profile of the DRC will start a snowball effect of greater awareness, greater funding and more political will. And by much less earnest, much more impressive means, that’s also what this play aspires to do. It throws information like mud at its audience, and hopes that some will stick. It gives a taste of Congolese culture, the Lingala language, the vibrant music, the dancing and the trivia, in hope of whetting our appetite to learn more. As lectures go, it is pointed, passionate and exceptionally entertaining.
Author: Adam Brace
Director: Michael Longhurst
Box office: 020 7359 4404
Booking link: http://www.almeida.co.uk/whats-on
Booking until: 1 October 2016