Review Round-Ups

Review Round-up: Charman Latest Well Observed

The Observer, the latest play by former staffer Matt Charman, received its world premiere last week (20 May 2009, previews from 13 May) at the National Theatre, running in rep in the NT Cottesloe and directed by former NT artistic director Richard Eyre (See News, 27 Feb 2009).
An international group of observers arrives in a West African country to oversee and rubber stamp its first democratic election. New voters queue in their thousands, but a senior member of the observation team find herself both horrified by the president’s suppressive tactics and, for once, in a position to do something about it. Yet as violence on the streets escalates and the country enters free fall, an increasingly angry young translator forces this well-meaning outsider to confront the impact of her intervention.

Anna Chancellor stars as Fiona, the observer, alongside Chuk Iwuji as her translator and James Fleet as a Foreign Office official. Also in the cast are: Leo Bill, Daon Broni, Peter Forbes, Lloyd Hutchinson, Aïcha Kossoko, Louis Mahoney, Cyril Nri, Isabel Pollen and Joy Richardson. The production is designed by Rob Howell and runs in rep until 8 July 2009.

The Observer is Charman’s third play. It follows The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, premiered at the National two years ago, and 2005’s A Night at the Dogs, which won the Verity Bargate Award.

Many critics recognised The Observer as “a big leap forward” in Charman’s development as a dramatist, describing it as a “compelling”, “gripping”, powerful” and “impressively researched” piece tackling “mature” matters. Some did wonder, however, if the story has found it’s best form, perhaps lending itself more to a literary or big screen treatment. Charman’s play is well served by Richard Eyre, who directs a “fast-paced” production with his “customary fluidity”, and by the “passionate” Anna Chancellor, who delivers a “marvellous central turn”. There was also ample praise for the supporting performances, particularly those from Chuk Iwuji, James Fleet, Cyril Nyri and Lloyd Hutchinson.

  • Michael Coveney on (three stars) – “It’s a hard slog, this play … But it’s so beautifully directed by Richard Eyre that you’re convinced that, with re-writes, it might make a good film … Why should a democratic process be desirable in the first place (because we think so) and then what … The playwright Matt Charman certainly keeps you guessing, and so does his career thus far with terrific plays about betting on dogs and polygamy in the suburbs; the latter, The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, proved that he could stretch a good story through a fine theatrical mesh. This play feels more like a screenplay, with a fatal lack of dramatic accumulation … The play lacks a killer punch, despite a stunningly staged finale where the video of a conference speech is upstaged by its own theatrical ‘verite’: Anna Chancellor gathers herself to give the final report, but we’re left unmoved and pondering what might be on Newsnight tonight.”
  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times – “Richard Eyre’s directorial profile is suddenly high once again … Matt Charman’s play is the kind of drama one associates with Eyre – it’s about the consequences of breaching the principle of neutrality when acting as an observer in a foreign culture – but I’m unpersuaded that it is as deep or as original as we might be supposed to think. It is also self-consciously coy in avoiding specifics … Eyre helms a tight ship, with Anna Chancellor impressive as the international election observer who Grows Too Involved and is horrified to find that others recognise as much … The further out of her character’s control matters move, the better Chancellor’s portrayal of someone who has lost touch with her task … The play is about the emergence versus the imposition of values, Realpolitik versus principle, spin versus substance, and above all about consequences and the difference it makes when one has to stick around as they unfold … I fear that the African setting here may also be a shorthand for a package of associations, and a kind of exotica that patronises even while it is desperately trying to do the opposite – not unlike the protagonist herself.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Almost everything you read and hear on the news about Africa focuses on the violence, the corruption and the human suffering – making the prospect of a safe passage home before bedtime essential to a pathetic wimp like me. The National Theatre is now offering the possibility of just such a day trip with Matt Charman‘s impressively researched if excessively garrulous new play, The Observer … If the play has a moral, and I think it does, then it is that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions … Charman is excellent at tense encounters between the white observer and the African characters who feel patronised by her very presence … Richard Eyre marshals a large cast with assurance, and his production, designed by Rob Howell, gives a real flavour of the country. There are strong performances, too, from Anna Chancellor as the passionate but increasingly frazzled Fiona …; from Chuk Iwuji as the loyal African translator who comes to deplore what she is doing; from Cyril Nri as a splendidly sinister army general; and James Fleet as a wry, sly old hand from the foreign office … For all its merits, I suspect this intriguing but sometimes pedestrian drama would probably work better as an atmospheric novel than it does as a play.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Matt Charman‘s last play at the National was a weird comedy about suburban polygamy. He makes a big leap forward with this one, which deals with the role of international observers in elections. That may not sound the sexiest of subjects, but Charman’s play expands to become a timely metaphor for the potential dangers of liberal intervention … The big question, one dramatists have explored since Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, is whether do-gooding idealists are a blessing or a curse … The play grips partly because elections are always fascinating, and because Charman sees both sides of the case. Behind also lurks the shadow of ‘humane intervention’ on a larger scale, used to justify the invasion of Iraq. A well-researched play about Africa takes on a larger resonance. But Richard Eyre‘s fast-paced production rightly allows us to make such deductions for ourselves and focuses on the matter in hand … What I really like about Charman’s play, however, is that it takes us behind the scenes of an electoral process rarely explored on the British stage.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) – “It is worth asking if we British have any moral authority to lecture third world leaders about ‘free and fair democracy’ and how to concede to political defeat. Matt Charman‘s clever new playis about a high-minded British woman who is deputy leader of an international group of observers overseeing an election in West Africa. Fiona (Anna Chancellor) is one of those punctilious, bossy liberals who speaks sentences ending with a rising inflection. She prides herself on her professionalism … Chancellor is excellent. James Fleet plays a crumpled, nicely amoral British diplomat who spies on Fiona and decides not to stop her influencing the election result. This character is straight out of le Carre. Fleet, with his weary shrugs and air of throwaway cynicism, is well equipped for the role … There are one or two unconvincing scenes … But Richard Eyre‘s direction keeps one gripped. There is also a delicious send-up of a TV foreign correspondent by Lloyd Hutchinson.”
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard – “It’s astonishing that there haven’t been more plays on the vexed topics of post-colonial guilt, British (non) intervention in contemporary African politics and the inability of international agencies to act when they spot foul play. Credit, then, to Matt Charman, for moulding these issues into a gripping and powerful work, although far less credit for his final dramatic conflict resolution skills … The parallels with the wretched situation in last year’s Zimbabwean elections … are unmissable. Charman offers a compelling electoral quasi-thriller but eventually deviates oddly into an arid end-justifying-the-means debate. I objected to his hand-wringing liberal scruples when events take a surprising turn; or rather, I could have better tolerated them if the scenario he optimistically envisages had been the case in Zimbabwe. Richard Eyre directs with his customary fluidity … It’s a marvellous central turn from the increasingly frenetic Chancellor, whose tensed shoulders and twitchy eyes suggest a woman who has toiled fruitlessly in high-pressure situations for too long. Charman’s warning is clear: the observers themselves must be observed.”
  • John Peter in the Sunday Times (three stars) – “Matt Charman’s play may have been inspired by the bloody circus of the Zimbabwean elections, but at its heart there is a sense of indignation about what we call the developed nations offering their assistance … This is a play about the innocence of honesty and the impotence of goodwill. Fiona is an idealist, and Chancellor understands perfectly how her moral drive undermines her political drive. This is a subtle performance, almost a tragic one; her meeting with a senior army chief (Cyril Nri), oily, brutish and obviously Sandhurst-trained, is a gem of racial-political confrontation. The play takes too long to come to the point, but once it gets there its argument unfolds ruthlessly … Richard Eyre’s production is expertly poised … and there’s a delicately poisonous performance by James Fleet as a shifty FO man.”

– by Terri Paddock