Saturday, 26 September 2015

Theatre review: Dinner with Saddam

Children's author Anthony Horowitz has a fondness for playing in other people's sandpits - he's written Sherlock Holmes novels and recently gave James Bond a sassy gay friend - and now he turns playwright. The subject is his enduring anger over Tony Blair and George W Bush's military action in Iraq, and he's attempted to confront it with shocking comedy - well, "shocking" is definitely a word you could use. Dinner with Saddam is an attempt at a farce based on the true fact that Saddam Hussein would sometimes appear unannounced at the home of one of his subjects; ostensibly to show solidarity with his people, though it didn't hurt that it meant the US army didn't know where he was so couldn't blow him up. In 2003 Ahmed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and his wife Samira (Shobu Kapoor) are bickering over the lack of fresh food and water, the broken toilet and their daughter's impending marriage, when it's announced Saddam (Steven Berkoff) will be joining them for dinner.

However questionable the material it's still exciting to get to see a true acting legend on stage; yes, it really is Gita from Eastenders.

Horowitz has populated his comedy with a feisty daughter, Rana (Rebecca Grant,) furious at being made to marry the oafish and malodorous, but well-connected Jammal (Nathan Amzi.) There's also her true love, with Ilan Goodman playing both the awkward unemployed actor Sayid, and the sinister head of security Colonel Farouk. How embarrassed the author must have been, then, when he realised he hadn't actually populated the script with any jokes. There's some heavy-handed attempts at setting up a farcical scenario, with rat poison in a spice jar and a turd in the fridge, but at some point he gives up and resorts to an extended fart gag in an attempt to get laughs.

"Saddam Hussein? They should call him So Damn Insane!"
"You're fanning the fires of hatred!"

Horowitz says he took inspiration from Molière, Orton and Frayn, but the end result actually suggests he half-watched a sub-par episode of 'Allo 'Allo. Goodman even acknowledges this influence in the way his Farouk is essentially an Iraqi Herr Flick. Noises Off director Lindsay Posner is also at the helm here, but he's only as good as his material, and it's not just the comedy that flounders: The attempt to make an uncomfortable political point boils down to Saddam having a ten-minute rant where Bush and Blair's willingness to sacrifice human lives doesn't come out that well against his own.

Having announced his annoyance at no longer being allowed to perform in blackface earlier this summer, due to the pesky impediment of it being 2015 and all that, Berkoff now goes for the next best thing by performing in brownface, made up with a light coating of gravy. He at least seems to be in his element, although that may just be concentration, as at times he seems to have employed the James Earl Jones method of learning lines. The rest of the cast have to be commended for the heroic efforts they make to try and bring the comedy to laugh, but ultimately they're fighting a losing battle.

Dinner with Saddam by Anthony Horowitz is booking until the 14th of November at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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