THE LION
Cochrane Theatre, London WC1
Opened 1 October, 1993

Michael Abbensetts' play is tagged as "a psychological mystery". However, there's not enough psychology and precious little mystery in this story of a man's past catching up with him and exacting its price.

Ramsay James, ousted president of a Caribbean island republic, finds exile in the "Motherland" complex and painful. His ex-wife evicts him from her London house when his assets are seized. The daughter he's met only once (abandoned in England after a student affair) doesn't offer the adoration he expects, and her boyfriend has an agenda of his own. Even James's sole remaining bodyguard a priest of the Obeah religion is restless, and old victims stalk his nightmares.

This is a man who has everything except a redeeming virtue. Stefan Kalipha conveys James's casual egotism and exploitation, but there's no chink in the character through which the audience can engage with him, nor a moral counterweight in any other character.

The play, though, is no maelstrom of amorality to leave us dazed and revolted. Abbensetts' writing is light and deft, peppered with seemingly uncontrived one-liners and telling observations. James's language keeps responsibility at a distance: his former lover "got herself pregnant", even a political opponent "got himself shot". His awakening comes with the discovery that "When a black prime minister stops being prime minister, he's just another black man". The script is rich without being overwritten; Abbensetts intends to entertain as well as to provoke.

If he succeeds on the first count, the second is far less of a triumph. Horace Ové's honest direction cannot disguise the fact that to be blunt the plot runs on rails. We know from the first that James will be forced to confront his political and personal atrocities, probably in a climax of violence and humiliation. We know that Gideon, the combative young boyfriend, will reveal a connection with the dark past. There will be no rapprochement with ex-wife Isabella nor any salvation from his burly, mystical bodyguard Hendricks; Madge Sinclair and David Webber give stronger performances than their transparently supporting roles deserve.

The production is tight (or will be once Danny Kwasi Sapani, as Gideon, learns how to tie someone up convincingly) and entertaining, but we always know our destination. The play's final image of a desolate, bereft James may be a witty subversion of the antique colonial "For the honour of the regiment" cliché, but more probably it's just pushing its luck. The whole is frustratingly less than the sum of its parts.

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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