Theatre review: Chimerica - Lucy Kirkwood's piece is a strong contender for play of the year

 

Her back catalogue includes an unflinchingly eloquent promenade play about the life of a sex-trafficked girl and a lethally mordant satire about power and privacy in the era of glossy celebrity journalism. So the imaginative range and penetration of twenty nine year old Lucy Kirkwood's oeuvre were well established. But nothing had quite prepared one for the sheer theatrical boldness and thematic sweep of Chimerica, her remarkably ambitious, three-hour exploration of the fast-changing and complex relationship between the United States and China.

The play was unveiled in May in an Almeida/Headlong co-production and it now transfers to the West End where it jubilantly justifies the near-unanimous rave reviews. 

The show's serious, witty, multi-layered meditation on the cultural contrasts and similarities brought out by the superpowers' co-dependency occasionally puts you in mind of the work of Robert Lepage but there's more narrative drive here in the quest-structure Kirkwood gives to her material. Joe Schofield, a fictional American photojournalist, gets a tip-off that the subject of his most celebrated image – the young protester facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – might now be living in the US. 

In the obstinate doggedness of his search (which unfolds during the Presidential election of 2012),  Joe puts at risk his job, his affair with a British market-researcher and his friendship with Zhang Lin, his kindly Beijing contact, who finds himself tortured by the authorities after leaking to Joe a story about the deadly levels of air pollution there.

As it shuttles between the US and China and between the present and memories of 1989, the play throws up a host of provocative issues: the true nature of heroism; financial dependency and its effect on press freedom; the changing role and ethics of photojournalism; the inescapable ambiguity of images etc. 

It could have become a tad indigestible. But Lyndsey Turner's dazzling, fast-paced production is one of those rare occasions where matter and manner are brilliantly fused, with significant thanks to Es Devlin's superb design - an ingenious cube that revolves through time and space, drenched in Finn Ross's excellent projections of black-and-white contact sheets, each marked with a red editorial pen as a pertinent reminder that no photograph is unmediated. 

In the splendid company, Stephen Moore compellingly conveys the charismatic recklessness and blinkered self-absorption of the photographer; Benedict Wong is a movingly haunted Zhang Lin, goaded to renewed protest by the ghost of the wife who was killed in the Square; and Claudie Blakley brings a lovely witty brittleness to Joe's girlfriend who knows that the only way to crack open this market is to note that, far from wanting to become a copycat America, China “values the supremacy of its own culture above all else”. A strong contender for play of the year.

To October 19; 0844 871 7622

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