Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(43user reviews)
 (© Finn Ross)
© Finn RossBenedict Wong (Zhang Lin)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonAndrew Leung (Young Zhang Lin) and Elizabeth Chan (Liuli) in Chimerica at the Almeida.
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonStephen Campbell Moore (Joe)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonClaudie Blakley (Tessa)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonBenedict Wong (Zhang Lin) in Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre.
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonKarl Collins
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonTrevor Cooper in Chimerica at the Almeida Theatre.
 (© Finn Ross)
© Finn Ross

In ancient Greek myth, a ‘chimera’ was a fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head and a serpent’s tail. In Lucy Kirkwood’s new drama, ‘Chimerica’ is something bigger and scarier than that.

The word was originally coined by historian Niall Ferguson to describe the globally dominant co-dependent relationship between trigger-happy spendthrift America and control-freak money-grabbing China.

This is a thoughtful, complex portrait of New York photojournalist Joe Schofield’s search for the subject of his most iconic picture: a lone Chinese protestor who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5 1989. Here, Chimerica is a fragile web of shifting human relationships, which are sometimes severed by corporate greed, state cruelty, or individual selfishness, but achieve moments of connection which transcend their inhospitable environment.

This is the play of the year so far, and it marks Kirkwood’s graduation from exciting young talent to major writer. It’s staged with a film-like fluidity and flair by brilliant director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin inside a spinning cube, whose sides open to reveal the squalid Beijing flat of Zhang Lin, Joe’s kindly Beijing contact and friend, and the office of his genial, morally compromised New York newspaper editor. But the only things that are black and white here are Joe’s photographs of China, which are projected all over the set as newspaper contact sheets, crossed out or reframed by the editor’s red pen – a subtle reminder that a photograph is an opinion, not a simple record of the truth.

Transferring from the smaller Almeida theatre, the production suffers from the lack of intimacy. West End theatres were built like megaphones for heroic tour-de-force performances and extroverted productions – not this subtle, voyeuristic play-without-heroes, which you have to peer into to appreciate. Scene-by-scene, it’s got the originality, intelligence, richness and humour that we’ve come to expect from the best HBO dramas. But it doesn’t always have their entertainment factor, and sometimes lacks the thrills that you need to keep you on the edge of your seat for over three hours.

Actors Stephen Campbell Moore (selfish, idealistic photographer, Joe), Claudie Blakley (the corporate market researcher who Joe falls for) and Benedict Wong (as Zhang Lin, the private hero of the piece) make the three central characters unforgettable.

They are fictional, but their circumstances are not. And this complex portrait, inspired by a real photograph, sends you out into the night with much more to think about than you had before.

By Caroline McGinn


Average User Rating

4.1 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:23
  • 4 star:7
  • 3 star:6
  • 2 star:7
  • 1 star:0
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Great play with a terrific insight on the complexity of our recent history as well as on the similarities and differences of individuals.

It's theatre experiences like this that make you wonder why you don't go every week. Such a fast paced fascinating script, easily shifting between countries, times and locations. The set was magical and worked seamlessly to create an almost filmic experience. The music also kept dipping in and out, mainly I wasn't even aware of it, like in a good film, but sometimes it resonated through the theatre. The acting was superb and the sheer amount of characters that were portrayed made you lose track of how many made up the cast. What a wonderful addition to theatre Lucy Kirkwood has created, you clever thing you.

China-bashing. My, I’ve done it myself plenty of times. So I went to Chimerica intending to revel in more of the same. But Lucy Kirkwood shows the value of being an equal-opportunity skeptic – she handles the easy target of big, evil, relentless China and if she had done nothing else we would have breathed a self-satisfied gulp of fresh, democratic West End air. But she also practices the Homer Simpson principle of skewering all the characters – she exposes the moral acne of the various journalists and editors, the self-confident marketing expert, Chinese immigrants, some illegal and confused and hiding secrets of their own. All done in a magic-lantern-cubic set that seamlessly shifts between Beijing, the New York Times office, New York’s Chinatown. The TimeOut critic noted that the play suffered from being moved from an intimate theatre to a big venue. She’s right, but the play is big enough, containing enough truths, laughs and frisson and cynicism, to hold its own on any stage.

Superb play. The best ai have seen this year. Cleverly staged, beautifully acted and utterly compelling. And some food for thought too. Well done!

Chimerica is a 3 hour play that keeps you on the edge of your seat and challenges the stereotypes as they unfold in front of you - nothing and no one as they seem to be. The consciousness person reviles his true colours of self importance and not carrying for others, the ruthless business person becomes the conscious of the play, the cold hearted helps an immigrant to find a job and the "hero" is just a person who has a wish to die. Although it placed in America and China it is a universal play that could have been placed anywhere in the world. The turning cube is just brilliant and is a very clever solution for moving between countries, cities and people. We loved it!

Because my partner and I saw the well-reviewed play 'Old friends' at the Harold Pinter theatre and we thought it was sleep provoking, it took some persuasion to have my partner another go at the Harold Pinter theatre for the also well praised play ‘Chimerica’. We were so brave to take a guest with us. When we arrived we realized it was a three hour play, so we took a deep breath before we entered the house, agreeing that we were all allowed to leave early if it was just as boring as the last play we saw here. My friend asked: “It is hopefully not a play about war or politics”, and I was saved by the dark closing us in as the play started. The new drama written by historian Niall Ferguson and directed by Lucy Kirkwood was everything but dull and a very good starter for a dinner talk afterwards. There a few storylines in which we learn to know about the characters which are living in the US and China, all connected by the event on Tiananmen Square on June 5 1989, at which time a Chinese protestor stood in front of a column of tanks. For me it was about how idealism has a place in your life, but that idealism can also have consequences for other people without you knowing it. What you see in the news is definitely not always the whole truth because of other interests (politics, money, powerful and influential companies), the timing and other reasons and the big question is, is the truth helpful in making this world a better place? Are idealists the only persons who can make this world a better place, or are they just egoistic people who do what they love, no matter what the consequences are? Is it possible to be an honest politician dealing with influential other powerful countries while your own country economics are depending of that country? And there are more questions raised in this interest holding story performed by a well casted group of actors in a scenography that keeps you curious in what will come next. One little remark though: not every actor understands what it means to have tickets for the top of the balcony and not having English as a mother tongue. Better and louder articulation please! At the dinner afterwards with my partner and our mutual friend, we had lots to talk about. And that is what a good drama can lead to, isn’t it?

Good story, compelling staging and fantastic dialogue; really entertaining to listen to. For me the acting was a bit patchy in places but interesting stuff overall and we were glad we went. Small tip; if you're booking tickets, don't go for the first three rows, the stage is set high up so your neck might get a bit achy by interval!

Briljant play on how politics can influence the personal and professional life of people. China turning more capitalist and America (the 'Western world') influenced by rising China. All this placed in two time zones, scenic demonstrated by photograph and newspaper cuttings projected on the four sides of a cube. The cube also serves as a turning device to show different scenes. Joe Schofield's search is a thriller during which the mysteries and hidden truth of China unravel. Dispite of the cultural differences between China and the US, the base line of human relations, friendship and human suffering shows that we are all human beings with the same feelings. Having adopted two Chinese children and having travelled 5 times to China over the last 15 years, I was personally touched and certainly recognised on scene the changes China went through during that period. Attending a conference in London I was again impressed by the high quality of (English) theatre and I thank TimeOut for showing me the way to book this play.

Well worth it. Thoroughly enjoyable, but not quite as thought provoking as 'A doll's House'

I guess I expected a lot, especially given the almost uniform gushing reviews. The impressive set and music along with the quick-fire dialogue and changing scenes keep things rolling and sweep you along somewhat but doubts really start to pile up. Firstly a lot of it is rather cliche, the sort of made for TV drama that would be a little forgettable if you saw it on a Sunday evening at home. Secondly the direction botches certain scenes, leaving you waiting for something more than they can provide. Thirdly the acting... is mixed. I guess it suffers compared to 'A Doll's House' which I saw the night before but a lot of the actors were quite poor. The actors portraying the idealistic young lovers in 1989 seemed like work experience students who'd wandered in off the street and been given a job. Anyway I'm happy I went and did enjoy it, I'm just a little mystified about the aclaim it's getting.

Managed to get £10 tickets for this amazing play. I felt like going down in the break and giving the actors more money. This was the best value for money thing I've done in a long time. Really enjoyed this, great acting, great set, great story. Go see it if you can.

To review here would be to negate one of the finest speeches in the play. "You think I enjoy using the word 'multi-platform'? That I think it's desirable to employ the best writers in the country, then stick a comments section under their articles, so whatever no-neck grain-fucker from Arkansas can chip in his five uninformed, misspelled, hateful cents because God FORBID an opinion should go unvoiced? Assholes Anonymous validating each other in packs under my banner, that's not a democratic press, it's a nationwide circle-jerk for imbeciles"

Spectacular. Interesting plot, thoughtful and funny dialogue, good scenography and altogether a wholly successful experience. GO FOR IT!

Chiamerica was outstanding. Incredibly creative staging exceptional acting. The story line left you on the edge of your seat with suspense. Would see it over and over.

Brilliant!!! Exquisite set, brilliant acting, fast paced, great multi-layered story - and makes you think, laugh, cry...and leaves you thinking well beyond the performance has ended. Highly recommended! Only criticism could be slightly slower with clearer pronunciation in areas.

You are right, this is a HBO television drama and not theatre. The actors are lost on a cinematic set robbed of any breath, life or spontaneity. The only way this play should be remembered is by studying the clever marketing campaign behind it and marveling at the actors avoiding so many sliding panels. Selling out? Somebody is.

Once you see passed Headlong’s oh-so-cool multimedia spectacle, Kirkwood’s whizz-bang West Wing-style writing, and the speedy pace of acting (this director abhors a vacuum I tell you), slow this baby down and there’s a befuddled naked Emperor standing in your midst. Yes, we need worthy plays like this to remind us ad infinitum that theatre is meant to teach and also edify. So what did I learn: modern China and the US are mucked up with amorality at all levels – yawn; hard-bitten photo-journalists do battle with crusty media CEO – double yawn. It’s a clever detective play – doh. ‘But what about the love story you heartless commentator’—you ask? Well, there’s nothing like a love story to reveal the complexity of that singular searing moment in photojournalism history - of the anonymous hero facing annihilation. That’s why we cry and get all cathartic in worthy plays like this—it’s history innit, but it's also us, it’s them, it’s horrible, stop the world I want to get off! And it tries like hell to be real because, well let’s face it, you get to see reality television on stage, and marvel at how clever it is that two genres are intersecting. But it fails, because theatre – profoundly moving, deeply reflective theatre that is – abhors that kind of soulless vacuum too. At least television you can forgive for trite predictable scenes and cod characters, clichéd treatment of Chinese characters, and dialogue that is so information-loaded you’d rather read Wikipedia for their edifying brand of fictional histories. But you’ve paid West End rates, so how are you going to explain to your friends that you’ve been well and truly mooned by the Emperor. You have to suspend criticism and side with general consensus (and that is not the name of the Emperor by the way). As for historical/current affairs plays, at least Prebble’s ‘Enron’ managed to enliven and entertain us about the sordidness of the greedy human condition by overlaying the drama with the myth and power of numbers, and Freyn made us gasp (not cry!) at the fragility of human existence in the normal heart of friendship ‘Copenhagen’. When something like this gets five stars across the board, it is surely time for a cultural revolution in theatre and a sweeping away—nay, a public flogging of the reviewers. Or better yet, just call in the tanks.

Chimerical might have been more compelling if it had been on 10 years ago. Now, it seems dated and so very long. Having said that, the set is great and the actors try their best to keep the audience engaged with some witty lines.

Excellent, fast moving, great script, amazing stage set and, above all, brilliant acting. Try to get a central seat about 8-10 rows back in the stalls to get the best vantage point..

Sorry, this is not a review yet. Just a note of caution: I found out that booking via Timeout.Com does not give you the best seats for this play, so please compare other options on the web before booking! (I like Time Out don't get me wrong, but I'm stuck to seats in row P while other operators still have much better seats available)

Don't bother going. You will soon catch the trailer of a "profound, important, insightful film". Soon to a cinema near you.

Chimerica is one of the best pieces of theatre I have seen since I moved to London 4 years ago. Over three hours I laughed, cried, I was shocked and moved. Incredibly powerful theatre, punchy dialogue packed with wit and humour, the staging was beautiful and felt almost film like, and several powerhouse performances too. I was right at the back and standing for most of the play (my legs too bandy to keep behind the railings) but I was engrossed throughout. I can not recommend this highly enough.

I couldn't agree more with the previous review. Brilliantly articulated!

'Chimerica' is the story of a rugged photographer, Joe, who's seen his fair share of atrocities, including the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Now he's looking for that one last scoop. Specifically, he wants to find the man in the photograph he took in China that day – the white-shirted figure who defiantly stood up to the tanks of the People's Army. So begins a story which feels cinematic in the extreme. Joe is a familiar movie trope. This passionate journalist has to chase down leads, exploit his contacts and get past his hardline editor on his hunt for the truth. Added to which he's embroiled in a will-they-won't-they love story (of course). The film analogy stretches to the scene changes, which are so frequent and smooth it's easy to forget you're watching a play. A giant cube spins centre stage, revealing apartments and restaurants both in China and the US. New York looks like it does in every film. Beijing looks like its based on '1984'. If the play has a point, beyond just being a gripping story, it's that China might be a place of political oppression and growth at any cost, but America isn't all roses either. We capitalists, with our Western narratives, can't help but see the world in terms of heroes and villains, and impress our own values (mostly picked up from film and TV) on stories in other parts of the globe. The truth is, no matter how good the photo, it's impossible to judge the reality of a moment from a single frame. Moreover we can't see something moving without also seeing dollar signs. But, here's the kicker, this is a play that does just that – appropriates an image from a moment in history that we can't fully understand (especially as Westerners) and gives it a story that fits the neat story arc of a film. In other words 'Chimerica' attempts to tell the story of Tiananmen Square in a way we can understand it, even if the truth is lost somewhere down the way. What is the play then? A powerful statement on the ultimate pointlessness of artistic representation of the most harrowing moments in history? Not really – it's a West End smash, and it's very earnest in the way it's acted (kind of badly, to be honest). It's fallen into exactly the same trap as Joe, who in the end sells out his journalistic principles for hard cash. For all its quality of research, well-written dialogue and compelling presentation, 'Chimerica' is just another schlocky story waiting to be snapped up by Hollywood.

Unlike restaurant reviews, I find that that going with review recommendations usually turn out quite good. At a first glance, I would've given Chimerica a past but after reading so many reviews on how its most likely the play of the year - I had to see it for myself. Unlike a lot of plays, I found this one engaging through out the story. At first I thought it was going to be too serious but really enjoyed the bit of humor that is weaved into the script. Really brilliant how they change scenes using the stage cube. Definitely one of the best plays I've seen in a long time. Highly recommended!

Arrogantly over-worked story and one-dimensional boring acting. Unimaginative visuals. I left completely unimpressed.

I went without any expectations - without reading the reviews and was drawn in by the iconic photo I saw being advertised. I've never felt compelled to write about a play before until now and would strongly urge you to see it. The writing was clever, the set design beautiful and the cast were just incredible. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. See it before it finishes mid October.

Hugely disappointed. It does make you think how theatre critics shape our taste and our aesthetics. The play was screaming "I WANT TO BE A HOLYWOOD PRODUCTION" and the playwright was also shouting "look how intelligent, learned, well-researched I am!" Too much effort for what? Flat, wooden characters, with awful american accents, over pretentious want-to be-real-and- sophisticated-and-funny-and-political plot. And I didn't know Robert Redford's All the president's men was back in fashion. No real insight, no essence. Good for the average serious newspaper readers who want to make sure that they understood all the twists and turns of the story and then assure themselves that they have seen a thought provoking play.

I had no idea what to expect from Chimerica before the play began but was easily drawn in by the intriguing premise. Personally I don’t feel like China and the Chinese enter my cultural radar much and if it does, it’s normally in the context of global economics. The play’s depiction of Western and Eastern lives overlapping prevented the Chinese characters and settings from being too unfamiliar or hard to relate to, while the odd spot of humour helped the plot’s momentum. Despite that it did feel quite long; the play demands full concentration for its entirety which is draining given the length (about two and a half hours), especially if you go to the pub first. I may have done this. Your concentration is rewarded though and the play will make you think on the future of global superpowers, the economic crisis and the experience of the individual during iconic historical events. The set is utterly ingenious: a huge white cube dominates the stage, onto which images are projected. Sections of the cube are cut away to create living rooms or kitchens, giving the impression you are voyeuristically peering through a transparent tower block wall, deftly reflecting the claustrophobia of living in a dense American or Chinese city. The cube rotates on a turntable to reveal these changing sections and the whole thing is beautifully choreographed. A superbly executed piece on the role of individual players in the narrative of our history.

I must admit my disappointment. In fact I went to see Chimerica filled with great expectations. I found the plot and the all production rather too close to cinema and not enough to theatre - and to be honest not exciting and rather boring. The rotating cube and the visuals were a dejà vu; the relationship between China and America came across as a superficial individual quest that turned out to show how cruel and hypocritic Western people are as opposed to the naive and idealistic attitude of the main Chinese character - I think we're now living a completely different and more complex scenario; and the acting wasn't impressive at all. The main female character - i.e. the corporate market researcher who Joe falls for - was moody instead of interesting and Stephen Campbell Moore remained an actor on stage, someone playing his role without any passion all throughout the play. Anyway, this is the first time I was ill-recommended by Time Out. I guess it's bound to happen at least once. Hopefully never again.

If you've ever seen a Headlong production, you know you will love Chimerica. If you've never seen one, start now. Lucy Kirkwood has written a fiercely intelligent, absorbing and moving story which is told to the audience through an engaging company of actors and a stunning set. The action is fast paced, slick and filmic. We are drawn into the lives of two feisty and attractive people who, through their stormy, sexy relationship, begin to question the true costs of their idealism on their friends and each other. The character of Tess in particular is so beautifully and truthfully written and acted I am sure Claudie Blakley will be nominated for an award. You may discover more about modern China and its complex relationship with the west than you ever wanted to know, but you will leave the theatre thinking about the events portrayed, the big issues discussed and how they will affect all of us, now and in the future, years after the Tianneman square massacre. As Napoleon said: 'When China wakes, the earth will tremble'. Unmissable. The most significant and dynamic piece of theatre I have seen this year, fully deserving of its five star rating.

Excellent production...a story of our times...the tendency we have judge a picture on our preconceptions and extrapolate this to interprete history . What is reality ? This play explores the possibilities in a provocative and enlightening manner

Really enjoyed this. Very thought provoking stuff with a great set. Definitely recommend.

The obsessive (fictional) search of a New York photographer for the ‘tank man’, the white-shirted protester with shopping bags who remains the iconic symbol of the Tiananmen Square massacre, sounds worthy and serious. And Chimerica does tackle the political-science topic of the day: China is here, it’s huge and hey we don’t understand it. But it does so with wit and superb storytelling, snappily racing along, seamlessly jumping between Beijing and New York via some very clever staging. Performances are skilled, with special mention going to Claudie Blakley as Tess, not just a love interest but a foil for photographer Joe’s idealistic need for everyone to be a hero. The drawbacks are seriously minimal: it’s straightforward rather than groundbreaking (yet another gruff newspaper editor character, though he gets some fantastic lines about journalism in the digital age); one of the love-story strands was overdone; it might be a little too long (it didn’t feel it in terms of maintaining interest but there’s not a lot of leg room in those Harold Pinter Theatre seats). But who cares? This play is solidly entertaining. Apart from the thought-provoking issues it dealt with, what I couldn’t get out of my head afterwards was how uplifting it was to see so much talent in one spot. Most of that credit is due to writer Lucy Kirkwood – let there be no doubt: the woman is a star.

The play was a very interesting take on a pivotal moment in human history. I really enjoyed the story of East meets West and how our futures are intertwined. The set was fantastic constantly switching between China and America. I strongly recommend this play and the time seemed to fly by. Fantastic

The play is an epic accurately portraying a variety of relationships across a range of emotional circumstances and a beautiful set.

Fantastic,the settings were great. I did not expect the ending as it was. Very well put together. seats were very good in dress circle. Most enjoyable afternoon. Staff were very helpful.

A riveting evening that improbably manages to bundle together ethical issues, human rights, political corruption and human frailty and not give you indigestion. Campaigning photo-journalist goes on a hunt for Tiananmen Square's iconic 'tank-man' and in the process tears apart a carefully constructed and maintained web of convenience and amnesia. Watch the contrasting ways in which he and his Chinese friend deal with the painful knowledge that surfaces for each. Lucy Kirkwood's play works through swift sharp vignettes - witty and punchy - staged in, around and projected onto a revolving cube. Terrific staging whose visual flamboyance avoids (unlike 'Enron') overwhelming the message.

The second half is better than the first. Utterly lacking subtlety and already rather dated- if you asked a 6th former to write a play about Chinese American relationships this is probably what you'd end up with! Great set though.

CHIMERICA Inventive set creating a dynamic space internally - and externally - for contextual placement of the changing action. Script echoing the suggestion of a rubric cube with its pacy twists and turns; humour, political astuteness , modern working life in a multiinational competitive arena. The 'presentation' scene, a gem...Great acting by Claudie Blakely.... I almost believed she had really lost it! The first act could have ben tightened up? Possibly a bit too packed with ideas but, hey, perhaps that just reflects the pace of generated thoughts with the internet's daily global reach... And to finish, a great psychologically-aware final twist of the cube - we all create our own stories from what we see - had a cathartic emotional effect that rippled through the auditorium. Travelling on the tube the next day, could not but notice how many Chinese people around!

Firstly the solid 5 star reviews are fully justified in the case of this play. It is quite dazzling and full of big issues but doesn't lose touch with the deep emotions and human frailties it attempts and succeeds in capturing. Highly recommended as a unique theatrical experience. One caveat - the theatre itself is totally unsuited in my view to the visual impact that is a key ingredient of the experience. I had full price stall tickets but could only see the first tank as my vision was obscured - I went to the box office who apologised but had only limited alternatives. I exchanged for 2 dress circle tickets but found myself with a column in my way and though it was slightly better it does truly impact on the enjoyment and ultimately customer satisfaction. 10/10 for the play - a rich theatrical experience - 1/10 for the choice of venue - this is a play that needs space to really capture its unique essence.

Really just a brilliant play. Brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, brilliantly staged. I saw Kirkwood's NSFW and wasn't that impressed, but here her script brims with carefully observed human follies, conversation that feels true to life, love, brutality and history. She has pulled off a remarkable feat in Chimerica. The staging is amazing - a rotating cube that flips between China and America, between strip clubs and immigrant kitchens and offices and bedrooms. The direction is incredibly slick as a skillful cast portray various characters, walking on and off stage, climbing over and under, and breathing warmth into a full array of characters from different backgrounds. It is not a brilliant play because it is perfect. It is brilliant in the sheer scope of its dazzling ambition, which it largely lives up to. A must-see for this year.