“Give me the history of the Congo in four and a half minutes”
There’s an ingenious moment in the middle of They Drink It In The Congo when a PR guy has to step in for an ailing colleague at an imminent press conference and utters the line above. The answer he gets exposes not only the vast complexity of the socio-political issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo but also the way in which Westerners seek to reduce them to manageable soundbites so that they can be dismissed as problems easily solved
Which in a nutshell is the key issue at the heart of Adam Brace’s new play for the Almeida. Aware of the impossibility of doing Congolese history justice in a couple of hours, he approaches the issue from an alternative angle, the impossibility of “doing something good about something bad”. Daughter of a white Kenyan farmer, Stef now works for a London NGO and is excited to be given the opportunity to organise ‘Congo Voice’, a new arts festival raising awareness of the issues there.
What seems like a golden opportunity is soon revealed as highly problematic as ensuring the steering group is at least one-third Congolese poses a challenge, reconciling different wings of the Congolese diaspora in London proves even more difficult once an anti-government militant organisation becomes aware of the plans and hovering over all of this, personal demons from the past haunt Stef’s actions and throw questions over her true motivations.
It’s an interesting route into a difficult subject and Brace’s use of black comedy makes it a devilishly good watch, even through the occasional longueur which the vibrancy of Michael Longhurst’s production can’t always disguise. But with a dynamic original score by Michael Henry played live by a band of three onstage, a fiercely committed company of 12 multi-roling very effectively and Jon Bausor’s design taking the Almeida in the round and down, it’s an enjoyable play.
Fiona Button’s Stef is an intriguing character, her liberal intentions exposed and excavated as a strikingly Pepto-Bismol-coloured ghost stalks her (Sule Rimi’s Oudry doing great physical work here), Anna-Maria Nabirye is superb as a woman caught between her heritage and her future and Richard Goulding’s desperate ex is a perfectly pitched source of comic relief though even he is outdone by a brilliant scene of Pythonesque farce as the would-be militia lead by Richie Campbell’s Papa Luis try to film a threatening video clip.
Brace’s writing is pleasingly complex too, no easy answers provided here, just a roll call of indictments from the first colonial interlopers through to voracious modern-day consumers who are stripping Congolese mines of the rare minerals needed for smartphones. A free sheet is handed out as you leave, offering plentiful sites of further information and the success of They Drink It In The Congo is that it makes you realise that this homework is worth doing.