Phil once stood in Tiananmen Square, not facing a tank obvs, but facing the body of Chairman Mao (or what’s said to be his body) in the Mao Mausoleum. He also played frisbee there (in the square that is, not the mausoleum, although it was certainly vast enough in to have flicked a bit of plastic around in front of the waxy-looking ‘body’).
7 years later the tanks that rolled in were stopped by an unknown man standing in front of them. He was captured on film in what was to become one of the most iconic images of the last century.
The gushing raves for Lucy Kirkwood‘s Chimerica (a co-production with Headlong) have ensured a sell-out at the Almeida (where it’s now in its last week), hardly surprising canny Sonia Friedman snapped it up for the West End where it’ll be at the Harold Pinter Theatre from August 6th.
Could this be the same Kirkwood who delivered the Whinger-unapproved Tinderbox 5 years ago when apparently she was already a year into writing this play?
Extraordinarily it is. But here she’s woven an utterly compelling fantasy about a fictitious photojournalist, Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his quest to track down the brave man from his picture 23 years later. Is “Tank Man” still alive, and if so, what was he carrying in his plastic bags?
There’s a lot packed into the nearly 3 hours running time: the US and China becoming reluctant bedfellows, globalisation, freedom (or lack of) of individuals and the media, pollution and the power of an individual image to influence the world and more. Phew! Almost too much to digest. But there’s no feeling of po-faced preaching, it’s depicted through dozens of brief scenes, each location clearly defined by projections (video by Finn Ross) on Es Devlin’s versatile revolving white cube set. Nippily travelling between New York and China through, strip clubs, fish markets, police stations, apartments, hotel rooms and Tiananmen Square, Lyndsey (Posh) Turner has ensured there are never any longuers in her seamless and filmic direction. No doubt someone will snap up the film rights in due course. That’s if they haven’t already.
But what is most unexpected is how funny it frequently is, cleverly drawing the audience in for the Big Themes and more sombre – but never less compelling – Act 2. An early scene where Joe meets market researcher Tessa (Claudie Blakley) on a plane and she profiles his sidekick Mel (Sean Gilder) is laugh-out-loud funny.
Neat parallels are drawn between the the American and Chinese sides of the story including violence, pregnancies and er, table lamps. Aren’t the two superpowers playing out All About Eve on a grander scale? America is the once powerful star fading while a new one rapidly emerges from the wings to usurp it.
Campbell More is terrific at the centre of the story, managing to be authentically obsessive without being the slightest bit irritating. Trevor Cooper is hilarious as Joe’s editor and Benedict Wong as Zhang – Joe’s potential link to “Tank Man” – manages the tricky mix of dry humour, sensitivity and strength outstandingly. Blakley and Gilder are amongst those handing out winningly engaging performances.
Without giving too much away, there’s a recurring image which wouldn’t be out of place in a Korean horror film and it’s a first time we’ve seen someone having milk poured in their eyes or heard Lance Armstrong let alone Kate Adie name-checked in a play. And following on from the new egg-breaking theatrical trend, we now see fridges coming to the fore. Amen Corner and (we’re told) Fences both have significant fridge plot points. There’s something strange going on in Chimerica‘s appliance, which is so disgustingly filthy it may declassify it as a white good.
Disconcertingly un-Whingerishly the only slight negative is a twist at the end which seems fairly predictable but does lead you to reassess what’s happened previously. But it is the mildest of gripes. It’s an absorbing mystery/thriller, witty, smart, ambitious, moving, pacey and often dazzling to look at. It even came in 10 minutes under the advertised 3 hour 5 minute running time. A transfer to the West End ensures Olivier Awards will be breathing heavily down its neck.