Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe
Oval House Theatre
The set is moody, swathed in orange lighting evoking an ethnic African feel. The stage is hard wood boards on an incline away from the audience. A circular piece of the floor is cut out and sits level, the only part of the stage that is horizontal.
A plush blue velvet chair with a solid wood table sits inside the circle with expensive looking fine bone china randomly piled up across the front of the circle. As the play develops this bone china serves as a device to demonstrate the distance between the protagonist, Nell Porter and her estranged daughter Georgia.
Inspired by first hand experience, Plowman has written a play that uses narration of letters to communicate the action to the audience.
By using this technique Plowman introduces an immediacy of the experience of both the writers and the recipients of these letters to the audience. There is a strong sense of giving voice to those in Zimbabwe that may not have been previously heard by mainstream Britain.
The players all enter the stage at the same time and the action kicks off with Nell in the foreground and the other actors observing from far corners of the stage. There is a simple but effective use of ethnic music and singing in the background to complement and support the action.
Directors Annie Castledine and Ben Evans establish the different geographies encountered in the play effectively by using the circle as the room in England and the wider stage as the experiences in Zimbabwe.
Through the character of Gillian Wright's Nell, Plowman presents a sympathetic portrayal of a white middle class British woman, acknowledging the contradictions in her character and her actions.
Nell appears to be in the grip of an existential crisis and Plowman uses her character to expose a potentially patronising Western response to African poverty through buying affection and thereby attempting to fill a spiritual void.
Hannah Boyde plays the poisonous and screwed up Georgia Porter convincingly, bringing spite and constantly undermining her mother's ambitions to do something for the young orphan boy she met in Zimbabwe on a one week holiday. Georgia is full of cynicism, is deeply suspicious and thinks the worst of her mother's new found focus.
It is ironic that Georgia has to use the medium of letter writing to finally communicate honestly with her mother after all the years they have had together face to face. Their reconciliation is touching and heartfelt, although it seems incredible that they will have truly salvaged their relationship with one letter after years of deceit and misunderstanding between them.
The dysfunctional English family contrasts with the dysfunctional and violently broken Zimbabwean family, run by children. The children of the play are portrayed as vulnerable and damaged - but more balanced in Zimbabwe than England.
Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe delivers some startling statistics including the average life expectancy for a woman in Zimbabwe at just thirty four. This brings a whole new meaning to the word child and the Western perspective of what that entails.
Plowman employs good use of humour to break up the serious and dark messages of the play. Partly through the experiences of the characters in the play and by using other devices such as alluding to the work of Will Self and Bob Geldof, Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe explores the concept of the Western Guilt Complex and questions what effect charitable actions actually have.
Boniface Masunda is played by the imposing Nicholas Beveney. Beveney delivers a powerful performance and although the character he plays is embattled and abused by the political system of his native country, Beveney consistently maintains a sense of integrity and presence.
Plowman emphasises the critique of President Robert Mugabe's regime through a monologue from Violet. Aicha Kossoko makes Violet a passionate and vulnerable character who delivers an incredibly brave speech openly criticising the Mugabe regime, knowing that doing so threatens her life.
The play closes with a direct address delivered by Boniface Masunda underlining the tragic outcome of the characters in the play. Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe is a powerful piece of contemporary theatre, giving voice to a little heard minority but at the same time challenging the sometimes misplaced generosity of Western charity. Plowman has written a play filled with compassion for the situation in Zimbabwe which leaves more questions unanswered than it answers.
Running until 18th October
Reviewer: Eva Ritchie