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Review: White guilt and conflict in They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida Theatre

They_Drink_It_In_The_Congo_website_1470x690Stef (Fiona Button), the central character in Adam Brace's new play They Drink It In The Congo, has given up a well paid PR job and is staking her reputation organising a festival of Congolese culture to raise awareness of the atrocities going on in the mineral rich country. Stef has been to the Congo and seen the horrors with her own eyes and wants to do something about it. It is a laudable aim fuelled with an element of white colonial guilt - her family did well out of farming in Kenya - and personal guilt at not being able to look at the injured people she saw.

"Don't look at the wound."

She manipulates her ex and PR friend Tony (Richard Goulding) into helping and wants a third of the organising committee for 'Congo Voice' to be from within the Congolese diaspora. However, things aren't going smoothly, with in-fighting on the steering committee and death threats from Les Combattantes des Londres.

Brace mixes dark humour (and sometime silly humour) with some of the grim realities of conflict in the Congo. We get a five minute history lesson of the country in a pre press conference briefing and then later we get a glimpse of some of what Stef saw during her visit. There are also the more subtle points: Stef who lives in her late father's flat talks about not being able to bury him in Kenya as he wished because the new owners of the farm won't permit it while the Congolese community have been forced to flee their homes.

The human cost is also emphasised in Oudry (Sule Rimi) - a pink suit wearing personification of technology - and later on a tube train when the commuters catch up on celebrity gossip and trivia on devices that no doubt contain minerals mined in the Congo.

But for all that is raised - from white colonial guilt, the politics of the charity sector, ethical consumerism and of course the extremely complex problems of the Congo - it is seeing it through Stef's lense that dominates and that was a problem for me. We learn a lot about her and her motivations - pride, grief, stubbornness and perhaps a little PTS. Yes she represents a stereotype but the more things fall apart the more personal she makes it. At one point she says to her Congolese friend Anne-Marie (Anna-Maria Nabirye) "After everything I have done for you" and she turns up at a wake to try and get support from within the community.

The comparison between Stef's plight with that of the Congolese people makes a hard point but in the end you feel manipulated into feeling sorry for her, the privileged white Westerner. It is the Combattante who sum it up best accusing the West of exploiting the Congo for its natural resources but atoning by playing music and reading poetry. The play ridicules Stef's response to the problem, however well intentioned, and yet we are left with the notion that she's sacrificed so much - lost her job and her reputation - but it's OK, she'll be fine.

They Drink It In The Congo is ambitious in the issues it seeks to address and as a result feels unwieldy. Where at times the humour works well to lighten the weight of its good intentions, it equally can feel at odds with the more serious content.  When Stef can finally look at the wound it left me wondering if the play was also able to. Director Michael Longhurst asks 'what is the value of a cultural response to these situations' and I've seen some very powerful pieces of theatre about conflict so the answer to that is I think there is value but I'm not sure in this case this is the right vehicle. It feels like the play ends up being the very thing it is trying to expose.

It is two hours and 45 minutes with an interval, I'm giving it 3 stars and it is on at the Almeida Theatre until October 1.