There Shall Be Fireworks
Devised by The Plasticine Men and co-written by Simon Day and Martin Bonger
The Plasticine Men
New Diorama Theatre
In 1952, when Ritchie—that’s the only name that he gives us—was six years old, his father went to build a dam in Afghanistan and he took his family with him. The little boy found it fascinating. He and is father fell in love with the country, they were always drawn back to it, his father was buried there in the White Cemetery, the Kabre Gora (the graveyard of foreigners) in Kabul.
When the Russians moved in they had to move out and for 15 years Ritchie did not go back to Afghanistan. He became a stock market trader in Chicago, a very successful one: he made a fortune and when the Russians left he was back bringing representatives of the many Afghan tribes to a meeting with a plan for peace and the future.
In contrast, he describes the British attempt to bring the Afghans together and what a cock-up they made of it. While his long involvement gave him some understanding of the culture, the British seem to have called them together to share a showing of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet documentary.
There Shall Be Fireworks is an 80-minute monologue that is one man’s story, based on a real person. The writers fill in some gaps from their imagination but, as Martin Bonger’s Ritchie frequently reminds his listeners, the stories he tells and the information he provides all are true.
Afghanistan has been a news story so often for a long time that you may think you know all about it. This play makes it clear that you don’t. It looks back to an Afghan heroine leading a sally against a British army in 1880. Ritchie doesn’t see things just through Western eyes but he is aware, as his mother reminds him, of the danger of replacing Afghanistan’s story with his own.
It is not a play loaded with facts but a passionate statement full of poetic images. His costume to start with: a long white shirt worn over his trousers like a local with a smart western jacket on top of it. He describes a Kabul of bustling markets, an Afghanistan where the sun makes the landscape look like a lion’s skin.
Simon Day’s direction and Max Johns’s design all contribute: a suitcase propped up on a pile of rubble on a carpet becomes a gravestone in the foreigner’s cemetery, a bunch or roses placed in front of it, but the rug and the rocks carry other messages too. There’s a smart office chair, a fan turns overhead and off to the side an aquarium full of water, nothing else, in which he rinses his hands, then dips deep soaking his sleeves. It’s a reminder of the dam that his father built, a dam erected with good intentions but has resulted in doing harm never expected.
Arms outstretched, Ritchie flies in to Kabul but what do those pellets he tosses into the water signify as they turn it first red then blue? He picks up petals and holds them fluttering like butterflies to become the hijacked 9/11 aeroplanes that crash in to the Twin Towers; later he will violently trash the whole bunch of roses. He swings a baseball bat as though ready for a home run then wields it savagely as a dangerous weapon.
It is a bravura performance that compels attention. It makes you think just how much the West gets things wrong and is a reminder of the centuries of foreign intrusion, of conflict that goes right back to Alexander the Great. What of the future? Will those fireworks be celebratory or destructive explosions?
Reviewer: Howard Loxton