The Empire, Theatre Upstairs, London

Reviewed by Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture

We're in Helmand Province in the blistering heat of summer and three men take shelter in a room in a wrecked compound (the superb set is by Bob Bailey; the hazily filtered glare comes courtesy of Jason Taylor's excellent lighting). Gary, a lance corporal from Tottenham, veers between seething anger and low-key sarcasm, an oscillation superbly conveyed by excellent Joe Armstrong. The almost elfin Afghan Hafizullah (Josef Altin) is contrastingly still and spaced-out on his hash-and-opium roll-up. A good mate of Gary's has just been mortally wounded in an ambush, so things are looking bad for the Punjabi guy they have picked up, unconscious and badly wounded, whom they suspect of being the Taliban operative responsible for the carnage.

Premiered in a pitch-perfect production by Mike Bradwell, D C Moore's second play, The Empire, is a brilliantly acute and witty examination of the conflicts of race, class, nationality, and fundamental values thrown up by a morally questionable occupation. The unconscious body, after having been urinated on, comes round to reveal himself as a fellow Londoner, Zia (Nav Sidhu) who lives near Gary. He claims that he'd been on holiday with an uncle in Lahore when he found himself morally blackmailed into accompanying an associate of his uncle to Afghanistan. This explanation is delivered in dialogue that is wonderfully alert to the weirdness of a situation whereby two London lads find themselves on different sides of a potentially murderous divide in a hell-hole in Helmand.

The fourth character is a posh commissioned officer called Simon (beautifully played by Rufus Wright) who, in a reversal of the usual prejudice, turns out to be the most humane of the lot of them.

To 8 May (020 7565 5000)