Mama Nadi (Jenny Jules) has a business to run and ten girls to feed; we meet three of them, one on the run from her husband, who have gravitated here as both refugees and sex workers. The clientele includes a travelling salesman, Christian (Lucian Msamati), who has a special relationship developing with Mama, a Lebanese diamond merchant (Silas Carson) and various militia men and rebel soldiers.
It’s a tinder-box situation, kept simmering with infectious onstage music played by Joseph Roberts and Akintayo Akinbode, and one that has resulted from years of genocide and exploitation. Nottage, who researched the play by visiting the tragic district and talking to many local people, creates a vivid and depressing picture of a hell-hole where the militia clean up and everyone else suffers; but women suffer most.
Indhu Rubasingham’s production, lavishly designed by Robert Jones and beautifully lit by Oliver Fenwick, has an oppressive, dank and teeming jungle atmosphere but cannot fully disguise the somewhat flat and platitudinous quality of the writing, which is much better at reportage than revelatory description, humour or even the rhetoric of war-mongering.
It’s clear, for instance, that Steve Toussaint’s fearsome commander in a yellow tracksuit is a man to be reckoned with, but we don’t really understand the complicated tribal allegiances behind the atrocities committed at the hospital or in the trafficking of valuable minerals. And there’s not much in the way of character drawing.
You do get a sense, though, of the hopeless political turmoil that destroys families and casts freedom fighters as rebels in a corrupt militia, and Mama’s three girls – played with great spirit and physical expressiveness by Pippa Bennett-Warner, Michelle Asante and Kehinde Fadipe – strike a piteous bargain of transitory pleasures in a nightmare scenario that leads to a flashpoint of bloody and fatal disaster.
Jenny Jules holds it all together with a quicksilver display of accommodation and cunning, making the best of a bad job, like Mother Courage, but finding humanity in horror, too, and even temporary solace in the company of Msamati’s likeable salesman who’s exchanged his soft drinks for the hard stuff and his threadbare apparel for a shiny blue suit.