Review: They Drink It In The Congo

Urgent realities that charitable intentions cannot reach


"Um Bongo, Um Bongo, They drink it in the Congo" was - actually, is - the well-dodgy lyric used to advertise a tropical fruit drink. Playwright Adam Brace cleverly uses it not just for the title of his ambitious play, but to highlight the complexity involved when engaging with conflicts abroad, especially when we have been among the chief exploiters of that country's resources.

His approach, however, and that of director Michael Longhurst, is to engage with humour.

Stef (Fiona Button) has landed the job of running a festival designed to highlight the problems of the Congo.

It is an area of the world whose people have suffered, either at the hands of colonial invaders or through internally driven conflicts, on a scale comparable to and even exceeding the Holocaust, which is not funny at all.

But when she conscripts the services of somewhat unreconstructed, politically incorrect PR guru and former boyfriend Tony (Richard Goulding) his presence in the racially and politically sensitive arena is entertainingly inappropriate. "What do you know about the Congo," asks Stef. "I know what they drink," quips Tony.

But, hang on. We are half-way into a review about a play whose heroine wants to highlight the problems of a strife-riven African country, whose cast is mostly black, and I am talking about two white people. Why? Because what's being explored here is the complexity encountered when good, white, British people want to do a simple thing like helping the oppressed population of a third-world country. Nothing wrong with that, per se. And in the scenes where Stef has to engage with Britain's Congolese community, you really get a sense of the political minefield facing those running well-meaning projects such as Stef's. The community includes an exiled terrorist group that sees the festival as a propaganda coup for their country's regime, activists who resent British involvement in their country's exploitation and one or two illegal immigrants, too.

But when, in a flashback scene, we see the cause of Stef's determination to help - a harrowing atrocity witnessed by Stef first-hand in the Congo - it reveals the dilemmas and difficulties encountered by those who do good works as a somewhat also-ran issue.

Button terrifically captures the frustration of having to accommodate the vested interests which affect those serving divergent causes.

And there is some terrific support from Anna-Maria Nabirye as Anne-Marie, an activist more concerned with helping her country's rape victims than staging its culture. But the nagging feeling that won't go away is that her story, not Stef's, is a more urgent one here.

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