An immediate sense of déjà vu attends President of an Empty Room even before the play begins as you take your seats amongst the clutter of the traverse stage that designer Bunny Christie has turned into a gritty evocation of a small Cuban cigar-making factory.
In December 2004, Hampstead Theatre produced the Pulitzer-prize winning Broadway play Anna in the Tropics that also revolved around the workers of a cigar-making factory; but if that play was compromised by an inauthentic production that felt about as Latin as Mayfair, this time around the play has the right atmospheric shading but insufficient dramatic momentum.
Debutant playwright Steven Knight (who is best known for creating the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and whose film writing credits include the script for Dirty Pretty Things) pays homage in a programme note to “the cigars that inspired me to write it”.
At a time when legislation is being contemplated to ban smoking in public places like bars and restaurants, this is an act of rebellion in itself. But the selfish and indulgent pleasures of smoking cigars that Knight admits to give way to an indulgent play that only peripherally touches on them and their manufacture. In fact, for a “work play” there is conspicuously little work actually going on; this is not a very productive factory.
Instead, the setting seems to be merely a shortcut to establishing an atmosphere, and Howard Davies’s languid production, Paddy Cunneen’s colourful score and Scarlett Mackmin’s choreography delicately enhance it.
But the play takes a long time to establish its plot amidst the petty squabbles (about whether to play flamenco or Michael Jackson while they
work) and larger disputes that inform this workplace. It turns out that one of their number has absconded; the senior cigar roller’s girlfriend, Alexandra, who is also the cigar taster’s daughter, has left Cuba for Key West on a tiny boat.
Though a strong ensemble cast that includes Paul Hilton as the jilted, heroin addicted factory leader, Jim Carter as the father and Stephen Moore and Anthony O'Donnell as two of the rollers inject it with a lot of character, the play’s point is as uncertain as the fate of the boat turns out to be.