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A CurtainUp Review
The God Botherers
--The London review by Ben Clover
The God Botherers slyly examines why Westerners leave their comfortable homes to do this kind of work and his conclusions may ring uncomfortably true. The publicity material sells this as "Not for the politically correct" (whatever that means) and this does the piece a disservice. Bean's play is in no way a cheap shot at the humanitarian efforts of NGO's (Non Government Organisations, usually charities) but it doesn't let anyone's preconceptions off the hook either.
Although set in the present the play is mercifully free of the "contemporary resonance" with which the English stage currently obsesses. It's got so as even Panto this year will have to contain a hard hitting critique of British foreign policy. Indeed, part of the point of this play is how little changed and how under-examined has been the idea of aid work for the last twenty years.
Laura (Georgia Mackenzie), a young aid worker turns up in the Tambia and is instructed in the work of the agency by the older, jaded Keith (Roderick Smith). Keith's worked on projects all over the world and often starts sentences with, "When I was in Cambodia in '75" and the like. The NGO's HQ where the play is largely set is served by local factotum, Monday (David Oyelowo) and cleaner/prostitute Ibrahima (Sunetra Sarker).
The plot takes a while to get into gear and at the beginning the characterisation and scene setting are quite broad. Laura's naivety is shown by her sketchy local knowledge (she's read The Idiots Guide to Islam after struggling with the Koran) and linguistic tics like her repeated "likes". Keith is quickly painted as a seventies style social revolutionary gone sceptic, he bangs on about his previous assignments and The Clash until Laura rather cruelly points out "you're just like my dad".
Once the plot starts to move you realise how clever a play it is as the issues and tensions in the set up are deftly interwoven. The normal gender roles and rules are disrupted as each of the characters and cultures misunderstand one another. The play rather neatly shows that the balance of power between the sexes is the defining characteristic of a society. These ideas are mixed with a set up a little like The Tempest and the effect is acid, comic and as the play moves on, increasingly dark.
There are lots of great set pieces but perhaps the best illustration of themes is Ibrahima's visit to the Mountain. Pregnant and warned that her husband will kill her if she gives him another girl, she fasts and prays to the Earth Spirit. Even from behind a Burqa, Sarkers' is a very moving performance as she implores the god for deliverance. Then her mobile goes off and the moment is shattered. Moving and bathetic the scene got a laugh of recognition for the situation, but one attenuated by guilt because the character was clearly at the edge of despair.
Bean is good at memorable visual images (see Under The Whaleback for a striking use of a nailgun) and The God Botherers is no exception. Keith's climactic scene with local thugs "The Diesel Boys" is bizarre, destructive and somehow heroic, a good example of how this does "big" scenes without seeming silly.
The cast and Bob Bailey's set are uniformly excellent and it is the Bush's great triumph to get such superb production values into so small a space. All the main characters have monologues in which they excel; Keith's remembrance of becoming a God fearing man is very powerful indeed. Normally hard to fit into a piece without compromising pace or integrity, the performances and William Kerley's snappy direction make these scenes a treat. Special mention must go to Georgia Mackenzie for her wonderfully comic performance but the whole cast work very slickly together as an ensemble when required.
Bean's is a rich and thematically complex play and if the issues sometimes loom a little large behind the action its wit and style more than make up for it. The God Botherers may be too tart and cynical for some but I found it the perfect antidote to all the worthiness theatre so often falls into.
LINK to Curtain Up's reviews of other plays by Richard Bean
Under The Whaleback
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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