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They Drink It in the Congo review at the Almeida Theatre, London – ‘evocative’

Fiona Button in They Drink It in the Congo at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Originally commissioned by the National Theatre and developed at the NT Studio, They Drink It in the Congo is a valiant but flawed attempt to contain a big, largely untold story. If we know anything about the Congo – beyond the advertising jingle for the British-produced fruit drink that gives the play its title, “Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the congo” – it is that a deeply divisive and destructive civil war is being waged there over control of its vast mineral wealth.

In 2013, Chiwetel Ejiofor starred in A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic that told a more tightly focused story set during Congo’s independence in 1960. Adam Brace now attempts a more kaleidoscopic play that is part chastening history lesson, part manufactured drama, that seeks to contextualise how Congo got to where it is now – and how London refugees feel about the home they’ve left behind.

Brace frames it through the slightly contrived device of a festival of Congolese culture that is being planned in London called Congo Voice, which aims to raise awareness of the region. But the young, white English woman who spearheads the event’s planning is an outsider seeking to effect change, and I was uncomfortably aware that the play, written by an outsider (and now reviewed by one, too) feels a bit like cultural tourism: deeply worthy and earnest, of course, but also ticking awareness boxes.

Some dramatic fire is provided halfway through the first act when the stage literally splits apart and the action relocates to the Congo itself, where we witness an attack on a family and aid workers trying to help its traumatised survivors.

Michael Longhurst’s production seeks to control this sprawling narrative with plenty of animating colour, including an onstage band of musicians, and a large ensemble cast tries to bring individuality to multiple roles. It engages and occasionally enrages, but it doesn’t always feel truly authentic.

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Evocative and atmospheric production of a sprawling play