A witty and angry new play about a well-intentioned festival in London vividly portrays the problems afflicting resource-rich Congo, writes Frances Beckett.
They Drink It In The Congo
by Adam Brace
Culture For Sale
A young woman, Stef, is appointed to run a festival of Congolese culture in London. Clever, politically alert and committed, and scarred by what she saw when she visited the Congo as a volunteer, she determines that it is going to be done properly; this is not going to be the Congolese as seen through the prism of fashionable London, but as the Congolese see it. But it doesn’t work out that way.
Writer Adam Brace – this is just his second full length play – believes in researching what he writes about. The play straddles four worlds, all of which Mr Brace has taken the trouble and care to understand.
There’s the small world of London’s NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and charities, rather pompously calling itself the voluntary sector, powerful and with control of substantial public and private funding, with its private jargon and its own private jealousies.
There’s the Congolese community in London, an equally tiny world but with far less power, riven, like many diaspora communities, by bitter and destructive internal politics.
There is the brittle world inhabited by London’s journalists and public relations consultants. And there is the Congo itself.
Congo, where a man being forced at gunpoint to be the first of several men to rape his own 13-year-old daughter is just part of life’s rich pageant; a land where, as one character reminds us, they had just one chance in the last sixty years of becoming a peaceful land; that chance was called Patrice Lumumba, in whose 1961 murder, evidence strongly suggests, the Americans may have been deeply complicit.
These worlds are put together with great dramatic skill to make a compelling narrative. Mr Brace is an accomplished writer who understands that dramatic and important subject matter is not enough to hold his audiences. He makes us care about his characters as individuals. And he makes us laugh surprisingly often, given the grimness of the subject matter.
There’s a hysterically funny detrousering scene which could easily have been written for the late Brian Rix. And there are quite a lot of rather good jokes. “There’s no easy way to say this.” “Is it a Welsh village?”
Even better, he extracts humour from the way his characters rub against each other. The Congolese on her committee berate Stef for being paid £28,000 a year to run the festival, and her public relations officer ex-boyfriend Tony - Richard Goulding - bursts out: “She’s a Cambridge graduate, she is seriously employable, she’s chosen to do this.” Later Tony says: “Good job you didn’t tell them what you really earn.” “I did” says Stef. “Good God” says Tony.
An influential Congolese pastor tells Stef: “You have my support.” She is delighted, until she realises that she cannot use his name, cannot ask him to say anything publicly, cannot tell anyone: “I support you. You have my prayers.”
Cleverly directed in the round by Michael Longhurst, the cast is led by the magnificent Fiona Button, whom I last saw as a wonderful Isabelle in Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon at the Playhouse Theatre.
She doesn’t just play Stef; she inhabits the character. I am certain her preparation must have included hours spent in long, bitchy voluntary sector committee meetings.
Other standout performances in a uniformly good cast include Anna-Maria Nabirye as Congolese scientist Anne-Marie and Sidney Cole as the Pastor.
They Drink It In The Congo manages the really difficult trick of being, at one and the same time, a play that has something important to say, and an entertaining night at the theatre. A green light and the best of luck to it.