This invigorating sprawl of a play cheerily draws attention to its potential problems straight away:
‘White words from black mouths,’ says Anna-Maria Nabirye’s Anne-Marie, ‘that’s what this event is. And it has no value.’
Cheeky; as cheeky as the title that draws attention to the fact Brits know little about the Democratic Republic of Congo beyond its namechecking in an ’80s soft drink ad. But it’s also a sign of the insecurities that underpin Adam Brace’s long-awaited second play.
‘They Drink It In the Congo’ is about guilt: the guilt its Congolese diaspora characters feel at having escaped the troubled DRC; the guilt its white protagonist Steph (Fiona Button) feels at having been born in Kenya to a life of privilege; and the guilt white writer Brace surely feels at writing a play about the central African country.
It’s been billed as a satire about white patronisation of Africa and the African diaspora in the post-colonial era. And at first that’s exactly what it is, a sardonic comedy about Stef’s increasingly obsessive quest to stage a government-supported Congolese arts festival in London.
The first stages of Michael Longhurst’s production are a treat, as the earnest, somewhat self-regarding Stef drags her bluff PR man ex Tony (Richard Goulding) along to a chaotic meeting of skeptical Congolese community leaders. An innovation of the show is to have the cast speak in English at all times, but have speakers lose their accents when they switch to Lingala, French or Swahili, with surtitles carrying the words of their mother tongue. Combined with the presence of Sule Rimi’s nattily dressed Oudry – an enigmatic figure who bellows out stage directions – it zips along at a rate of knots, as Stef makes the fateful decision to force through a rule insisting that it must be one third Congolese at all times, and the festival attracts the attention of anti-DRC government cell Les Combattants.
But then Brace expands his vistas: a long, serious flashback sequence at end of the first half gives us both a glimpse of the DRC’s suffering and also explains a few things about Stef and the mysterious Oudry; in the second half we get more of a peek at the lives of the Congolese characters. This feels problematic: the flashback rather undercuts the play’s self-mocking tone; a long sequence revolving around Les Combattants’s bungled attempt to make a propaganda video is funny, but feels slightly tangential and a bit off-key for a play that has hitherto made a point of only sending up white characters.
Not that ‘They Drink It In the Congo’ is in any way crass or insensitive. But it tries to do far too much: this is presumably the only play Brace is liable to write about the DCR, and he’s overstuffed it ideas for three separate shows, while not giving the characters enough room to breathe. But it is courageous, funny and hugely ambitious new writing that also sheds light on the problems of an immensely complicated country: in its own very ironic, very self-aware way, it articulates the challenges facting the DRC today rather more successfully than its heroine does.