Playwright Richard Bean is indeed on a roll. After Toast and last year's The Mentalists, this year he's premiered Smack Family Robinson at Newcastle's Live Theatre, Under the Whaleback at the Royal Court Upstairs, and now The God Botherers here at the Bush, which precedes another new play, Honeymoon Suite, care of English Touring Theatre at the Royal Court Downstairs come January.
Clearly, this is not a dramatist who worries about writer's block. Words seem to come easy enough to Bean, as do memorable characters and situations. Under the Whaleback, for instance, revealed the world of Hull trawlerman, with much of the action taking place in the crew's cramped quarters.
A vastly different scenario, at least on the surface, The God Botherers concerns itself with Western aid workers in developing countries, set primarily in and around a corrugated iron hut in a dusty African village in fictitious Tambia. The similarities between the two plays derive from the nature of such closed communities - trawlermen and do-gooders - with their various lies, loyalties and codes of conduct. All of which Bean brings to sympathetic life with extraordinary detail and insight.
After a gap year's travel and a few weeks' induction in Bracknell, Georgia Mackenzie's fresh-faced NGO recruit arrives in Tambia ready for service and adventure. Though she never made it past page four of the Koran, she can spout training manual platitudes about working "'in' the culture and 'with' the culture, not 'against' the culture" and is confident in her beliefs that the indigenous people are "fantastic" and that the one thing she'd change about Africa is the bribes - oh well, and maybe Aids, poverty and famine.
Such naïve enthusiasm meets with initial disdain from Roderick Smith's unreformed old-style aid worker, who has no real roots but does possess a tall tale from every corner of the globe, though David Oyelowo's native Monday is more beguiled. Over the course of the play, all three - as well as Sunetra Sarker's Ibrahima, who has the unenviable task of performing beneath a burqa (and manages it beautifully) - are disabused of their misconceptions and forced to adjust their world-views dramatically.
In addition to the creeping (and frequently inappropriate) Westernisation of other cultures, it's religion that Bean puts on trial in The God Botherers. Like much of the rest of the world, Tambia is a confusing melting pot of religions, never more evident than in the character of Monday, who lays claim to his Muslim, Christian or Jewish identities as they suit him - and is punished for his fickleness.
The four-strong cast all deliver in spades in William Kerley's engaging production of this latest thought-provoking play by Richard Bean. I can't wait to see what he has in store for us with Honeymoon Suite.