Theatre review: Chimerica, Almeida Theatre, London


Michael Coveney
Wednesday 29 May 2013 17:41 BST

Lucy Kirkwood has taken her title from a coinage in Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money and the mystery at the centre of her play from one of the most evocative photographs of the last century: that of the unidentified Tank Man in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Kirkwood here assigns this photograph to the fictional snapper Joe Schofield, played in a whirring narrative of visual imagery, sleuthing and newspaper politics by Stephen Campbell Moore; this actor, a sort of relaxed version of Damian Lewis, proves his mettle as both an impassioned observer and romantic participant.

A backward glance at Chinese history is fruitfully muddled with a present immersion in American politics and the consumer markets. Most of the play is set in last year’s US presidential election period, with Mitt Romney imploding in the background and Joe trailing a fictional upstate Democratic candidate, Maria Dubiecki.

His threatened exposure of her cocaine-snorting, Nixon-supporting past is the weakest element in a pleasantly ramshackle structure that seeks to make parallels between the current vibrancy and truffle-sniffing archaeology of political and commercial endeavour.

But Lyndsey Turner’s smart production for the Almeida, co-producing with Rupert Goold’s Headlong company, is so entertaining you can simply enjoy picking your way through the narrative minefield, which is lit up in the dazzling, neon-lit design of Es Devlin as a revolving cube of night-life, cool offices, messy apartments and street corners.

Joe’s our principal guide-dog, accompanied by Sean Gilder’s cynical newshound. On Air China they meet a commercial go-between, Tessa, whom Claudie Blakley plays, delightfully, as a comic, accident-prone tourist in trade deals. While she pratfalls in PR, and in love, Joe tracks down an English teacher, Benedict Wong’s haunted Zhang Lin, who might know a man who knew another man who knew the Tank Man.

One market that’s not expanding is in the newspaper industry, and Joe finds himself reined in by an impatient editor (Trevor Cooper) understandably indifferent to the economic miracle happening elsewhere. Meanwhile, the plot thins into defining who might be the real hero of this piece. Ingeniously, the answer starts coming back at us from the end of the play before we actually get there.

To 6 July (020 7359 4404)

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