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The Witness

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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The witness in Vivienne Franzmann’s second play – her award-winning Mogadishu proves a tough act to follow – is a gritty war-zone photographer, Joseph, whose adopted daughter, Alex, a refugee from a massacre in Rwanda that he “covered,” cannot settle in her new life.

Two pertinent issues emerge: does the foreign media expose, or exploit, a desperate and tragic situation? And can transplanted refugees ever feel at home in a Western culture? In the case of Joseph and Alex, there’s the added complication of the boy in the picture who was left behind for practical purposes. Who was he?

Simon Godwin’s production, in an extraordinary design by Lizzie Clachan (reducing the audience capacity to about 80), deposits us in Hampstead, creating a middle-class interior on two levels in 3-D: I was sitting on a shelf where the dado rail might have been, above the television set and drinks cabinet, with a good view of the Persian carpet, the staircase to the bedrooms, and the front porch.

Joseph (Danny Webb) is ordering cheese online, watching Loose Women on the box and fretting over a prestigious exhibition of his photographs. Alex (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is home from Cambridge, but unhappy after a boy touched her hair, and unhappier still when she sees the picture of herself grieving for victims in Rwanda.

The play takes a long time to click into gear, mainly because it proceeds in quite short scenes that don’t punch their weight, clogged up with too much information and the levered-in consequences of the arbitrary-seeming developments in between.

The experimentalism of this backfires, so you begin to think that the play should have been completely re-written in real, or continuous, time. With the arrival of the grown-up mystery boy, Simon (an athletic David Ajala), the plot twists become even more unlikely, with Joseph suddenly lurching into drunken promiscuity with a neighbour down the road whose live chicken makes an unexpected appearance.

Mogadishu was driven by the power of social fall-out following a playground incident between teacher and pupil. Here, the writing is flabbier, and the crisis seems leadenly contrived; still, that doesn’t deter Danny Webb from giving a characteristically punchy and expressive performance, switching between paternal pride and professional self-pity.

And the delightful Pippa Bennett-Warner manages, without seeming ridiculous, the difficult task of balancing the rival attractions of roots and feelings back home and packing shelves in Sainsbury’s.

The play never resolves the matter it initially proposes, that of how reporters like Joseph, scarred by his experience in Vietnam, a blood brother of the legendary photographer Don McCullin, or the late Marie Colvin, are supposed to operate without becoming “involved” at some stage.


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