The Under Room
Good Night Out
Cock Tavern Theatre
Written for Birmingham's Big Brum Theatre in Education company and first performed by them in 2005, The Under Room gets its London premiere as part of a season of Bond plays at this Kilburn theatre. It is set in 2077 but it could be now and anywhere where the military are the government and new laws give them more power.
The 'Under Room' is what an African illegal immigrant calls the cellar in which he is hiding and this production takes place in an actual cellar where the noises of heating systems and beer pumps in operation add to the ambience of the created sound. A circuitous approach, first climbing to the Cock's usual theatre space then down back stairs to the basement, already gives a sense of danger and concealment. A single chair onto which a stuffed cloth dummy figure is thrown becomes the centre of attention. A girl, Joan, is talking to someone. She is answered from the darkness by a rich voice with an African accent and a figure in a red shirt can just be discerned, but you soon realise that she is actually speaking to the Dummy for whom he is the voice, a person who no longer has any official identity,
The African has broken a window and climbed into escape soldiers in the street. He lives by shoplifting everything he needs but shoplifting has been renamed shop-looting and you can now be shot for it. He escapes notice in stores by being noticeable in a bright red shirt but if the soldiers stop him, he has no papers and they may identify him as the thief on the shop CCTV.
When the African reveals some of his story, and it is the sort of gruesome one that has been heard from conflicts in Africa and the former Yugoslavia, Joan decides to hide him and becomes involved in getting him papers and an escape to the north where he will be safer. This brings in a third person, a people-trafficker who needs paying, but what has happened to the money the African claims he had?
Each new piece of information he reveals adds a further twist of horror to the African's experience and Joan becomes increasingly bound to aid him with a growing feeling that she herself an alien in her own country. But this is an investigation of trust and fear and nothing is predictable, nothing entirely to be believed, especially as far as Jack, the fixer is concerned.
As often with Bond, there is an eruption of violence, its reasons no more logical than that the African reports, something for which the audience must discover its own reasons, whether a response to frustration and fear or a conditioning being created by a violent society.
This is not a play of logical argument but of emotional responses and full of symbols. Hamish MacDougal's production does not clarify what they stand for but embraces them for their theatricality. With performances as strong as Gavin Brocker's smilingly nasty Jack, Donnla Hughe's humane and frightened Joan and Matt Christian Reed's beautifully controlled traumatised African this is a powerful and gripping piece of theatre.
Playing (no performance Mondays) until 24th October 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton