Bang Bang Bang

Stella Feehily

Out of Joint

Octagon Theatre, Bolton, and touring

(2011)

Review by David Chadderton

Stella Feehily's latest play for Out of Joint, Bang Bang Bang, currently receiving its première at Bolton's Octagon Theatre at the start of a UK tour, looks at the lives of humanitarian aid workers employed by NGOs in war-torn Congo.

Saidhbh is an Irish aid worker in a relationship with former aid worker Stephen who suffered psychological damage after having his life threatened and they are trying for a child. However Saidhbh is constantly disappearing to Congo to look for evidence against a local warlord whose soldiers have been alleged to have recruited child soldiers and raped and murdered women in the area. For her latest trip she has French intern Mathilde to help her, but Mathilde's relationship with ambitious young photographer Vin, who appears to be with her just so he can hitch a ride and make a name for himself, threatens the safety of them all, including the Congolese women in their care.

This gives a fascinating insight into the lives and lifestyles of the mainly-female NGO workers in war-torn areas of Africa who put themselves directly in the firing line but still constantly feel guilty about not being able to help everyone. There are two threads to this story: there is a relationship that is struggling to survive when one of them is often away doing something that is more an obsession than a job, and there is also the story of what happens to the aid workers in these volatile areas.

The latter story sometimes comes across as very episodic in an attempt to squeeze in as much of the extensive research as possible, and even the relationship story has some slightly awkward dialogue in arguments designed to get information and conflicting ideas across to the audience. A humanitarian worker with a partner who does some work for Shell and is then offered a job in China could be seen as a convenient contrivance in order to create political domestic arguments, but it just about works in the context of the play.

While none of the battles, personal or political, are resolved satisfactorily, this is certainly not an unremittingly bleak play, as there is plenty of humour and some strong characters. Orla Fitzgerald's Sadhbh is in full-on attack mode all the time whether talking about noisy neighbours with Stephen or rape and murder with warlord Colonel Mburame, and she barely smiles until the final scene. Julie Dray as Mathilde gets the balance just right between a young idealist prepared to be reckless in pursuit of an ideal and a young girl who wants to have a good time. Jack Farthing's Vin is charming and manipulative but Mathilde is blind to his reckless ambition and disregard for her ideals. Dan Fredenburgh as Stephen is the calming influence on Sadhbh with some witty put-downs.

The other actors—Frances Ashman, Babou Ceesay and Paul Hickey—all play multiple roles very effectively, and there was a very impressive performance from young Pena Ilyambo, one of four children playing three different roles during the run, including an intimidating child soldier with a machine gun and abuse victim Amala.

While this is a play in which the mechanics of how story and characters have been manipulated by the writer to put across research and political arguments have been left clearly on show, it is still well worth seeing for some powerful and occasionally shocking scenes and performances, an insight into the day-to-day life of humanitarian workers which is rarely seen and some political questions which are raised and deliberately never resolved for the audience to go away debating.

Playing to 17 September 2011, then touring

Robin Strapp reviewed this production at the Nuffield, Southampton. It was also reviewed by Philip Fisher at the Royal Court.