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The Strange Death of John Doe review at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, London – ‘slickly staged’

Callie Cooke, Rhashan Stone and Benjamin Cawley in The Strange Death of John Doe at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Robert Day Callie Cooke, Rhashan Stone and Benjamin Cawley in The Strange Death of John Doe at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Robert Day

How did John Doe die? He fell from the landing gear of a Boeing airliner as it made its final descent into Heathrow. Since 1947, at least 96 people around the world have died in similar circumstances. Fiona Doyle’s new play takes one such person – Xima – and slowly uncovers his background. Who was he? Why did he want to come to Europe? What was his story?

Part police procedural, part on-the-run thriller, The Strange Death of John Doe is intelligently structured, slipping between the British inquest into Xima’s death and his hectic flight from Cape Town, to his home in Mozambique, to the undercarriage of a taxiing aeroplane in Angola.

Hampstead artistic director Edward Hall orchestrates proceedings slickly and stylishly. The action is framed throughout by Michael Pavelka’s clinical, pathology lab set, characters hovering around the edges sinisterly in blue aprons and face masks, with steel tables used variously as benches, beds and mortuary slabs.

The cast is impressive too. Rhashan Stone channels Idris Elba as a grizzled London copper. Callie Cooke and Nick Hendrix are funny as a pair of student pathologists. And Benjamin Cawley’s Ximo is a hauntingly human presence throughout.

But Doyle’s play, for all its impressive scope, is also tonally uncertain, veering uncomfortably between detective drama, knockaround comedy, earnest exploration of the refugee crisis, and – with Xima’s ghost constantly stalking the stage – schlocky horror flick.

Doyle weaves a remarkable, continent-hopping story of heroism, love and desperation. It’s just never clear what she’s getting at underneath.

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Verdict
A slickly staged but tonally uncertain continent-hopping saga about an unfortunate stowaway
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