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Review: THEY DRINK IT IN THE CONGO, Almeida Theatre, 23 August 2016

How long does it take to cover the complex problems in the Congo, AKA the most dangerous place in the world? Adam Brace's play has a semi-joking educational sequence that attempts it in four and a half minutes - putting to bed the ubiquitous Um Bongo jingle - but the morass of conflicting information presents a dramatic problem that this witty, engaging but messily sprawling piece can't quite overcome.

Stef, who was born on a farm in Kenya and has the cushion of a trust fund, is the embodiment of white liberal guilt. She's determined to produce a festival calling attention to the plight of the Congolese people, despite death threats from organisation the Combattants de Londres. However, as a harrowing flashback shows, this altruism stems in large part from her own PTSD and sense of futility. The political is very much personal.

Yet the same applies to us. In an era where we all have significant relationships with technology (computers, phones and tablets) we are directly connected to Congo, whose mines produce the mineral coltan - a key element of electronics, and a major factor in brutal warfare between militia groups. Not to mention the insidious colonial history we strive to forget. Congo may be the story "no one wants to hear" - too violent, complicated, depressing - but we are an inescapable part of it.

Brace continually returns to that notion of storytelling, whether narrative framing of events for the media, bedtime stories, parables, histories, or the power imbued in the teller. The festival is called Congo Voice, but, in a Kafkaesque series of bureaucratic steering committee meetings, often there aren't enough Congolese around the table to honour that idea. When selecting acts for the festival, Steph is choosing how to present their country - a more benign but still significant act of cultural colonialism, and one which the playwright is obviously grappling with himself.

Other competing elements in Brace's work include the politics of the charity sector; the Congolese gender war waged through rape and subjugation; the murky morality of violent protest; our overdependence on technology; survivors' guilt; and the Government's dubious claims of neutrality in global conflicts where Britain clearly has a stake.

It's far too much to unpack in three hours, but Michael Longhurst's energetic production goes some way to ensuring continued engagement. He emphasises the welcome black humour in Brace's writing, from the off-colour quips of Steph's PR ex, Tony (the excellent Richard Goulding), to an amusing audition series and absurdities like the Combattants doing farcical quick changes while filming a propaganda video because of a lack of personnel.

Quirky details emerge even in cameo roles, like the influential preacher with a fondness for probiotic yogurt or the Turkish neighbour gleefully taking advantage of the toilet facilities in the internet café where the Combattants assemble.

Fiona Button gives an assured performance as the often exasperating Stef, from well-intentioned manipulations to her desperate, wild-eyed unravelling as defeat looms. Anna-Maria Nabirye is dignified and articulate as campaigner Anne-Marie; Richie Campbell appropriately intimidating as extremist Luis; Joan Iyiola strong as Steph's passive-aggressive rival and an unflappable medical professional; and the expressive Sule Rimi (pictured above right) outstanding as a representation of the Congolese cost of Western technology. All phone calls and emails come through him, and he literally wears the scars of the region, in contrast to his spiffy pink suit, top hat and twirling walking stick.

Jon Bausor's clever set caves in to transport us to the Congolese mines and a vivid, immersive sequence - far more effective than speeches describing such events. Surtitles on a screen switch from Lingala to English, demonstrating the communication gulf and significance of language, while a fantastic live band provide both a rich soundtrack and the evening's best gag (hint: it involves The Smiths).

Ambitious and thought-provoking, but through an overstuffed format, in danger of following Steph's white angel path to befuddled conscience assuaging, rather than either making incisive satirical points or confronting the horror head on through streamlined, unforgettable drama.

They Drink It In The Congo is at Almeida Theatre until 1 October

Picture credit: Marc Brenner

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