Osama the Hero

Dennis Kelly

Hampstead Theatre

(2005)

Review by Philip Fisher

Recent new plays at Hampstead, especially those by English playwrights, have tended to lack edge. They have typically been cosy comedies that lacked the sharp political comment that one has come to expect from the Royal Court and, in its recent This Other England season, the Menier Chocolate Factory. This latter season was a product of Paines Plough and they have also been influential in the development of Dennis Kelly's new play.

Osama the Hero will very much redress the balance, although it may not find itself popular with either critics or audiences. Dennis Kelly does not worry too much about making his meaning clear, especially in the second half of a brisk 80 minutes.

The theatre's artistic director Anthony Clark has the support of an excellent cast. He is also assisted greatly by Patrick Connellan's grim set featuring bare walls and a burnt-out garage; together with some intricate and very effective lighting from James Farncombe.

Initially, Gary, one of society's misfits (played by Tom Brooke), explains how everyone thinks that he is responsible for the firebombing of a series of waste bins on his estate. At the same time, the angry Francis (Ian Dunn) rants to Rachel Sanders (playing his sister Louise) about the local "pervert" and his young girl.

Soon, the speeches melt into a fantasy of happiness with their baby daughter Armistice, created by the pervert Mark (Michael Mears) who has left his wife of 22 years for a schoolgirl, Mandy (Christine Bottomley).

All of these speeches and discussions continue, interleaving with each other with little development except for Gary's explanations of how his school project about Osama bin Laden has not gone down as well as he had hoped.

The play then literally features an explosive change of tempo as Mark's garage, the last intact one on the estate and his pied à terre for dalliances with Mandy, blows up.

Suddenly we are in a situation where the vigilantes have taken over. Gary is gagged and tied to a chair and in scenes assuredly designed to bring to mind the excesses of Abu Ghraib, he is horribly tortured and forced to confess to crimes that he has not committed. In this way, Kelly reminds us of the vengeful world that we are living in post 9/11.

The action then warms down as four monologues are delivered, seemingly bearing little relationship to anything that has happened before. The main connection is that three of them are unremittingly bleak dealing with death, a society falling apart and the need for someone to take responsibility for stopping a madness of violence.

The acting is universally excellent and this, together with the unsettling atmosphere is much to the credit of the director. It may not be easy to decipher the full meaning of Osama the Hero but this is a powerful and most unsettling work that may well haunt the memory for some considerable time to come.