Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Theatre review: The Strange Death of John Doe

Fiona Doyle’s second play for Hampstead Downstairs, The Strange Death of John Doe is structured as a post-mortem on what was, indeed, a strange death – though one not only based on a true story but on circumstances that are surprisingly common. The John Doe body in question will eventually be identified as Ximo (Benjamin Cawley,) found dead under the Heathrow flightpath with no sign of how he got there. The conclusion is that he’d stowed away in a plane’s landing gear and fell as it prepared to land, although whether the fall killed him or he was already dead from hypothermia is something pathologist Ger (Charlotte Bradley) and her team may never be able to establish. As they cut into Ximo’s body to find answers, detective John Kavura (Rhashan Stone) tries to figure out how he got there. Put on suspension because of his alcoholism and taken off the case, John is haunted too much by the story to let it go, and investigates anyway.

He builds up a picture of how Ximo travelled from Mozambique to Algeria where he snuck onto the plane, via some time spent working in South Africa. This is where the reasons for his extreme effort to escape Africa start to take shape, connected with a white couple he used to garden for: There may or may not have been a romantic element to his relationship with Rae (Callie Cooke,) abused wife of Jan (Nick Hendrix – you know he’s a bad guy ‘cause as well as the South African accent he wears loafers without socks.)

One of Doyle’s conceits for the play is that both John and one of the trainee pathologists, Anna (Cooke,) are haunted by the unknown young man and determined to get to the bottom of his story. Edward Hall’s production plays around with how literally we should take this haunting, Cawley’s body rising from the slab at times to look at them imploringly, before stepping into flashbacks to Ximo’s time in Africa. The playwright has said she isn’t consciously setting out to write a political play, and while it’s certainly the case that The Strange Death of John Doe makes a political point about the human story behind every refugee statistic, it’s clear that Doyle’s main objective is to create a mystery thriller. Of course arguably the fact that the wider implications are so easily inferred makes it more effective as a political piece than if it had been clearly written that way.

The upside of playing up the mystery element is that it hooks the audience quickly, and the first act in particular is excellent, Michael Pavelka’s design cleverly using the mortuary design to frame the whole story as a dissection of both Ximo’s body and life. The downside is that once the puzzle is solved the story loses its impetus, and Doyle gives us all the pieces quite early in the second act, taking the wind out of a story that’s already been slowed down by the interval. There are some interesting scenes including the fact that characters both malicious and seemingly good-natured (both played by Maynard Eziashi) play equally large parts in pushing Ximo forward towards his death, but they might have been better served earlier in the play when the tension was still running high.

As it is, we end up with an unfortunate case of Multiple Ending Syndrome – there’s one scene about 15 minutes from the end that would have made for a heartbreakingly ironic ending, as well as closing on Ximo himself. But we actually end on a number of scenes reiterating that his lonely death did have a personal impact on Anna and John, a point I think had been well-enough established already. I think if a few scenes had been cut along with the interval, the early energy would have been kept up to the end, but as it is the tension is allowed to dissipate a bit too much. Still, this ends up a good two-act play, but one I suspect would have made an outstanding one-acter.

The Strange Death of John Doe by Fiona Doyle is booking until the 7th of July at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Fiona Doyle.

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