Who Killed Mr Drum? Riverside Studios, London

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 06 September 2005 00:00
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His memoir, Who Killed Mr Drum?, forms the basis for this play. Co-authored with Fraser Grace and premiered in a warmly involving production by Paul Robinson, it's a rich, shrewd, generous-spirited piece that pulls you into a world where bulldozers are razing the township of Sophiatown and where the hard-drinking, fast-living journos at the Drum have to wrestle with the contradictions of surviving as a magazine at the price of suppressing, or taking an indirect approach to, vital issues.

A star writer, Can Themba, has taken a white lover and gone on booze-fuelled psychological Awol, a condition possibly overemphasised in the ironic self-dramatisation of Sello Maake Ka-Ncube's attention-seeking, outsized performance. The prevailing motto is: "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse." But the body of Henry Nxumalo, Drum's chief reporter (Wale Ojo), is a far from pretty sight, repeatedly stabbed about the face and chest.

The underlying frustrations of working for a white-controlled journal rise to the surface in the wake of the killing.Themba ventilates the suggestion that Stein (a wimpy Stephen Billington), cut down his troublesome "black slave" because he has "a family and a Buick to think of".

The piece is not without flaws. Far too long, it badly needs tightening. We don't know enough about the onset of Themba's affair with Lizzie(Georgina Sutcliffe), or about her background to be able to gauge the balance between sincerity and self-deception in her attempts to get the black journalist to live with her in London. Some of the dialogue has a forced B-movie compactness. "Your house, my country" is the artificially clipped way Dolly (Andi Osho), the former lover of Themba, justifies intruding in Lizzie's abode.

But Who Killed Mr Drum? surmounts these difficulties. It's animated by a genuine love for the journalists: their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, as much as their courage. There's a funny, sad, deeply humane sequence near the end when they send Themba into a white church (which welcomes "all sinners") and take bets on how long it will take before he is violently ejected. The scene keeps being freeze-framed for speeches revealing what became of them all - the deaths from alcohol; the exile. Stein says in his book that "by a fine kind of irony that would have appealed to them, they are more alive today than those who killed them". This fine play augments the truth of that.

To 8 October (020-8237 1111)

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