Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 25 February, 2008

This is only Mike Bartlett’s second original stage play, following the acclaimed My Child at the Royal Court last year. I was not entirely convinced by that piece, but as for this… “Embarrassment of riches” doesn’t begin to cover it. I cannot recall when last I saw so much, on both narrative and thematic levels, crammed into a one-act 80-minute play without the whole thing bursting messily under the strain.
It begins with 16-year-old Kelly finding out that the father who left before she was born is Iraqi. That in itself would be enough for many writers: there is scope in such a situation for a more than respectable amount of family drama, musings on identity and so on. But it satisfies Bartlett for only a few minutes. Ibrahim visits Kelly briefly, and presents her with an item from the museum in Baghdad of which he is director; well, you don’t introduce a priceless Mesopotamian vase into the proceedings unless it’s going to get broken. Again, this happens almost immediately, then we’re off once more on a course that takes in Kelly’s visit to Baghdad, an abduction, the reverberations of these events years later, and further dimensions of generational and cultural identity.
Now consider that title. We see one object of financial/historical/national value, and several others, ordinary things such as a tennis racket, of personal dearness to Kelly or her mother. But just as we invest value in constructed items, Bartlett suggests, so our more profound values are themselves constructs, artefacts; and we can cling to them as much as to a millennia-old pot or a childhood fluffy toy, with that tenacity preventing us from making connections with others.
I may make it sound ponderous, but this is first and foremost a drama, with its own momentum and a powerful central duo in the ever-impressive Peter Polycarpou as Ibrahim and a remarkable performance from newcomer Lizzy Watts as Kelly. James Grieve’s production for Nabokov (which goes on a six-week tour after this run) is firmly stamped with the Bush hallmark: “Simple but effective”. And for a play which thoroughly engages on whatever level(s) you choose to approach it and moreover refutes the notion that a full two-act evening is required to give material proper dramatic heft, you would be hard pressed to find its equal currently playing in London.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2008

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage