Review: The Strange Death of John Doe (Hampstead Theatre, Downstairs)

Fiona Doyle returns to the Hampstead Theatre with a story about a man who falls from the sky while trying to escape his homeland

"No one told me I wouldn't be able to breath!" wheezes the titular John Doe in Fiona Doyle's new play. It's moments before he drops through the sky from his hiding place tucked up with the wheels of a plane, ending up, unceremoniously, on a pathologist's slab.

It's in Michael Pavelka's disinfectant-smelling lab that this John Doe earns his name: no one knows who he is. He was carrying no documents, nothing to identify exactly where he was coming from or going to. Unhappy copper John Kavura has been moved, however, by the pointlessness of the man's death and decides to unravel the events which got our John Doe 35,000 feet above ground.

Doyle's play works backwards, slowly revealing more and more about the life of Ximo, the young man who took his life into his hands to get to Europe, only to discover his mode of transport all but suffocated him. His journey takes him through South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and eventually Britain after an incident with his violent, racist employer means he is forced to go on the run.

Back in the pathology lab, trainee Anna is gearing up for her exams and as she works on re-constructing Ximo, the lights flicker and the radio detunes itself. Ximo watches over her work, a ghostly echo of the life he once lived, peering at the heart and liver that she's just cut from his body. What makes a person? Is it stored within limbs and skin or what they do in their life? Doyle offers a kind of poetry on who we are and what we ultimately become.

The Strange Death of John Doe has a winning premise. It could have worked so well as a study of what drives people to such desperation and the uncaring, dangerous paths people take to run from their homes. But it doesn't deliver. The piece flits around, never really focusing on any of the characters, so that the real pathos and empathy we should feel for Ximo – and in-fact Rhashan Stone's Kavura – isn't there. The play's moments of mystical unearthliness, where spirits hover, and past, present and future collide, also jar with the more straightforward narrative arcs.

Edward Hall's staging has the ensemble as a kind of spooky, scrubs-wearing chorus, who open doors and push stainless steel hospital tables around to create different settings. They live on the edges of the action but they also get in the way a little. Like the play, the staging feels clunky.

Benjamin Cawley is poised as Ximo, while Maynard Eziashi and Damola Adelaja each bring drama to their several, fairly thinly written roles. The rest of the cast struggle with their characters' lack of depth and stodgy dialogue.

People falling from the bottom of planes slap bang onto neighbourhood roads and front gardens does happen. It's the violence and trauma of such an event – for all those involved – which is missing here.