The Strange Death of John Doe
Hampstead Theatre Downstairs
Although it has aspirations to be something deeper, The Strange Death of John Doe is in essence a TV-style police procedural stretched to 2¼ hours. As such, Edward Hall’s meticulous production, cleverly designed by Michael Pavelka, largely consists of numerous bite-sized scenes dipping backwards and forwards in time.
It opens in the post-mortem room of a mortuary where a student named Anna played by Callie Cook is undergoing assessment as she attempts to discover how Benjamin Cawley’s Ximo has died.
Ignoring some rather ghostly visitations from the dead man, the remainder of the play features an investigation incongruously carried out by a policeman suspended due to alcoholic excess and played by Rhashan Stone. This, in turn, leads the drama to at least half a dozen African countries including the dead man’s native Mozambique, South Africa where he was employed as a gardener and, eventually, Rwanda. From there the rootless emigrant stowed away in a jet’s landing gear out of which he eventually fell to his death over the United Kingdom.
The mortuary scenes are deftly handled using clever symbolism but can still be stomach churning in their detail, as the young trainee pathologist attempts to piece together the cause of death. In parallel, the suspended policeman travels the world, presumably financing the trips himself since he is no longer operating under the auspices of the Metropolitan Police.
In Berlin, he tracks down the dead man’s former employer from Cape Town (Miss Cook working overtime with a South African accent) and discovers a predictable tale of bullying by her husband, the deceased’s employer and, it is implied, some kind of bullying gangster or conceivably law officer.
The next step on the world tour features a meeting with the man’s brother in Maputo, Mozambique where more pieces are entered into the jigsaw of his life, presenting a happy-go-lucky idealist who is keen to make his name somehow, somewhere.
An evening that is filled with information and non sequiturs tries to make some important political points about air safety and the difficulties faced by those who attempt to migrate from Africa to Europe illegally but, too often, these can get lost in the minutiae of subplots that frequently lead to no visible conclusion.
Much of the pleasure of this simple production lies in the high quality of Edward Hall’s direction and the clever techniques that he uses to create background without resorting to video technology or expensive props. The performances from the members of a large cast are also, at the very least, solid with Callie Cook making the strongest impression from her dual roles.
Although it was a finalist for the 2018 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, The Strange Death of John Doe still looks very much like a work in progress and, if it is to follow other productions in this space Upstairs or into the West End, the play would benefit from some serious dramaturgical attention.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher