West 12 Shopping Centre, London W12
  Opened 9 March, 2009

It’s appropriate that a play rooted in a culture of outsourcing should take place in a nonce venue. HighTide here have the backing of the National Theatre and the nearby Bush, but Stovepipe actually takes place in the basement of a shopping mall in Shepherd’s Bush (not the massive Westfield development; the other, far more ordinary one). It’s not site-specific, but it is an imaginative promenade set-up. Designer takis [sic] has kitted out more than half a dozen separate spaces as a convention hall, hotel room, street, bar, office etc, through which the story and the audience move over an hour and three-quarters.
The opening convention casts us as delegates keen to take business opportunities in the rebuilding of Iraq. The first presentation, on “private security” (i.e. mercenary military work), morphs into the story of one such British “contractor”, Alan, an ex-paratrooper who joins up for the money following his mates, then sees one of them die in Baghdad due to a lack of basic equipment and the other disappear on R&R in Amman, suspected kidnapped. We see that, just as national governments are reluctant to take responsibility for the ongoing consequences of their military actions in the region, so their private-sector successors take every opportunity to avoid responsibility for even the most fundamental aspects of their soldiers’ service. Though, as Alan says later on to an Arabic delegate, “We don’t have any cowboys on our staff, we’re mostly pros and psychopaths.”
Adam Brace’s script is intelligent in using an individual human-interest story to indict a whole political/military/commercial nexus, although its climax is contrived both in the writing and in Michael Longhurst’s staging. Overall, too, it must be said that ingenious as the staging is, there is no real reason for it except “because we can”: for a relatively small-scale production of a play with a scenic structure like this, I suppose that if you can find a big enough space then it’s logistically as easy to have the sets fixed and move the audience around them as vice-versa. Still, the cast of five do sterling work, all in multiple roles except Shaun Dooley as the anomic, thousand-yard-staring Alan. A friend compared this to another, more fashionable site-responsive outfit also under the NT’s aegis: “It’s like Shunt,” he said, “only with a proper play.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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