Ruined, Almeida Theatre, London

Casualties of war lift the spirits
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The Independent Culture

The tragic state of play in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the backdrop to Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer prize-winning drama. The conflict has claimed over five million lives and fighting still rages in the eastern Kivu region. Ruined is a sort of bar-room snapshot of where not to go on holiday.

Nottage, an American who teaches at Yale and whose play was premiered in Chicago two years ago, was planning a modern Mother Courage with her bar-and-brothel keeper Mama Nadi picking up scraps on the move, but, overwhelmed by the stories of the Congolese women she met and interviewed in 2004, she settled on a more static, concentrated format.

She doesn't quite achieve the poetic power of Tennessee Williams, say, in relating these narratives. Nor, to be fair, is she striving to do that. The two new young girls at Mama's place arrive with their histories of abuse and misfortune but are soon subsumed in a general coming and going of businessmen, military commanders and rebel soldiers.

Mama, played with a supple authority and pragmatic wisdom by the delightful Jenny Jules, has 10 girls on the books but we only meet three of them. One is in flight from her husband. The others, whose charity is more sour than sweet, may defend themselves to music but they also attack their clients where it hurts – in the honour and dignity stakes.

The play thus achieves a sort of little victory against the impossible odds of genocide, tribal atrocities and political in-fighting, though of course there are no real winners on the distaff side. There is, however, a sentimental conclusion for dramatic purposes only, with Mama finding some emotional respite in the company of Lucian Msamati's travelling salesman.

Msamati is under-used in a fairly good role, which indicates the weakness of the play. While Indhu Rubasingham's attentive and well-controlled production does full justice to its sweep and atmosphere, there's nothing really resonant about the characters themselves. They seem like ciphers in a social project.

The Almeida has been virtually swamped by designer Robert Jones's jungle lair – the brothel is on the edge of a small mining town – and the heat of the place hums under Oliver Fenwick's lighting and hums some more with the musical irruptions of Joseph Roberts on guitar and Akintayo Akinbode on percussion. But other plot points, like the fetching of a significant pot for one of the girls, or the mad screeching of a parrot, are feebly incorporated.

In her research, Nottage recounts how the Congolese women she met "occasionally accessed their smiles, as if glimpsing beyond their wounds into the future". There's something of that in her play, despite the brutish incursions of the militia, the news of economic and civil chaos outside and the brothel behaviour of both government soldiers and rebels.

Michelle Asante plays the most dangerously exposed and doomed of the girls, while Pippa Bennett-Warner and remarkable newcomer Kehinde Fadipe, manage to infuse their sensual gyrations with a rare combination of helplessness and joy. All credit to the Almeida, at least, for pinpointing this desperate situation and reminding us of how lucky we are.

To 5 June (020 7359 4404; Almeida.co.uk)

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