The title of Dennis Kelly's latest was considered provocative enough to have four police officers stationed outside the Hampstead on the opening night. Does the north London venue have a Behzti on its hands (See News, 20 Dec 2004)? Fortunately not, though there is still plenty to unsettle in Kelly's chilling look at the paranoia and mistrust routinely whipped up in our current climate of fear.
Set on a rundown housing estate, Osama the Hero revolves around four working-class characters whose hysterical over-reaction to a supposed terrorist incident is to exact horrific retribution on its alleged perpetrator. Their victim is Gary (Tom Brooke), a 17-year-old misfit whose ill-considered classroom eulogy to Osama Bin Laden makes him the likeliest suspect. Okay, so there's no tangible evidence linking him to an explosion in a neighbour's lock-up. But as angry chav Louise (Rachel Sanders) points out, "You don't need evidence for terrorists."
Kelly convincingly sketches the frustration and escalating fury that impels his seemingly right-minded protagonists to inflict a punishment vastly out of proportion to the nebulous crime. But once Louise, her vigilante brother Francis (Ian Dunn) and paedophiliac garage-owner Mark (Michael Mears) take a hammer to Gary's face, Kelly’s play invites comparisons to Edward Bond's Saved and Sarah Kane's Blasted it is ill-equipped to handle.
As Pinter so ably demonstrates, the threat of violence can be infinitely more disturbing than the physical actuality. And it's not helped here by some fussy and unconvincing staging which seems unduly concerned with blood capsules and grisly make-up.
Osama also suffers from a distracting obsession with form. The 90-minute, no-interval piece begins with three cross-cutting fields of action before morphing into one central scene involving all five characters. Just as the narrative reaches fever pitch, Kelly shifts into a generic, monologue-based format that sees his guilt-ridden creations riff on everything from Salmon Teriyaki to an al-Qaeda beheading. The disconcerting feeling is that you're watching three separate plays, an impression hardly dispelled by the author's reluctance to clarify exactly who's done what to whom.
Still, Kelly's play - which runs in repertory with Jane Bodie's A Single Act from 12 May - keeps us hooked for most of its duration while making uncomfortable links between contemporary global concerns and a more general craving for cathartic vengeance. And given Anthony Clark's somewhat patchy track record since taking over as the Hampstead's artistic director, it's a relief to find the venue's tradition of locating bold and invigorating new writing is alive and mostly well.
- Neil Smith