Review: They Drink It in the Congo, Almeida Theatre ‘Bold, Ambitious’

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Oh, They Drink it in the Congo is one of those bold plays that provokes the question, what kind of a theatre-goer are you? Are you one that prefers polished productions, frustration with flaws coming easily? Or are you one that applauds risk, quite prepared to overlook clunky bits to welcome new subjects, risky viewpoints and challenging subject matter?

I say this because, well, there are some challenges with They Drink it in the Congo. At three hours, it’s too long. Some of the sub-plots are arguably extraneous, it occasionally gets bogged down with scenes that come close to outstaying their welcome, some of the theatrical ‘tricks’… hmmm, maybe they don’t always work.

So, the question is, how much do you care about this? How much would this bother you? Because, after sitting through this show, I’ve decided that I don’t. We’d always love to sit through perfect productions, of course. But when you’re breaking new ground, well, you run that risk of failure, of biting off more than you can chew.

With innovation comes challenge; that’s why we should welcome flawed productions that have the courage to tackle new ideas. And even though that means I could end up sitting through shows that are a bit all over the place, well, I’ll take that chance.

Fiona Button and cast_credit Marc Brenner

They Drink it in the Congo is terrifically ambitious. Big subject matter, brilliant tackling of tricky and massively issues, and a dynamic production that crosses borders, and incorporates live music and dance. It’s flawed, yes, but give me that over a conservative production any day.

Here, we are diving headfirst into the desperate situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo – arguably the most horrific place on earth (“If the Congo was a story, it would be the worst story in the world as no one wants to hear it.”). But instead of platforming Congolese voices directly, this play bravely sidesteps that and, instead, we investigate White guilt and the clumsy, naïve, even arrogant attempts by White people to try and ‘save’ a bad situation (of their own making).

Stephanie (Fiona Button) is a London-based NGO activist who is trying to organise a festival to raise awareness of the terrifying situation in the Congo. Only Stephanie is White and her only experience of the Congo was a brief (and traumatic) visit to a part of that country as a volunteer. What on earth does this White do-gooder think she can possibly achieve with a festival that will improve an impossible situation in a country that has been ravaged by war and exploitation for centuries?

Writer Adam Brace and Director Michael Longhurst have made a blisteringly good production that not only educates but entertains. The Congo has had a desperate history and shovelling exposition to get the whole audience up to speed must have been a nightmare proposition, but this is handled particularly well, blending a bit of ‘show and tell’ via a deftly handled education scene and some impressively extended scenes set in the Congo itself. (And given that I, too, studied History at the LSE I particularly respected the sleight at the White privileged character who did the same *thumbs up emoji*.)

Joan Iyiola and Kirsty Besterman_Congo_credit Marc Brenner

The complexity of the situation is certainly hammered home through an examination of the profound and bitter divisions within the Congolese diaspora in London as Stephanie tries to commandeer a politically correct balanced committee of representatives to plan the festival. But here too there are some great ideas.

Complete respect to whoever had the idea to have the Congolese diaspora speak in expected accented English when speaking directly to the White English, only to then flip into perfectly spoken Queen’s English when talking amongst themselves (translated into one of the many national languages spoken in the Congo via surtitles). That was a perfect piece of skewering there on prejudices.

And it’s also appropriate to applaud the cast too who are terrific throughout. In particular, the Black actors who flip between accents and languages at the blink of an eye. It all seemed so effortless. And the myriad of characters each is required to act, and then the dancing, the costume changes… Impressive, impressive, impressive.

For me, there is so much more here to get excited by than to frown upon and pick apart. So much so that I actually think I might go again before it closes at the end of the month. There is a thumping beat to this show that hooks you, and the unfolding tragedy really drives home that there is no solution to this desperate, desperate situation. And we should all hang our heads at that.

Almeida Theatre, London to October 1, 2016.
All images by Marc Brenner.

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