Christian Bradley, Shaun Dooley, Niall Macgregor, Eleanor Matsuura, Sargon Yelda
A joint collaboration between the National and Bush Theatres, the departure point for HighTide’s promenade drama Stovepipe a new play by Adam Brace is the West 12 shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush.
And upon arrival you will find yourself whisked into Jordan and Iraq, and a world flooded with mystery, intrigue and bloodshed.
In truth, you never go any further than some unused rooms at the back of the shopping complex, but the story is so compellingly told, the atmosphere so highly charged, that it’s easy to forget this.
As the audience is ushered into a Project Rebuild Iraq conference in Jordan, we become the delegates to whom South African, Andre Classens, is promoting his security company. We are the businessmen with contracts in Iraq, and Andre’s company can provide us with the protection we need as we transport our materials and build anew in the country.
But as the emergency alarm goes off during his address, we learn that all is not as it seems. Andre’s company preys on battle weary soldiers who still need to make a living. He then pays them a pittance for dangerous work, and frequently fails to provide them with adequate protection.
Three of the soldiers, Alan, Eddy and Chris, are soon caught in an ambush, probably caused by faulty radios that stop them receiving information, and Chris is killed. Then when Eddy disappears, Alan sets out to find him, but is caught over a barrel by Andre’s ruthless wife. She suggests that she will help him if he first fronts the Rebuild Iraq conference, but that if he leaves the company she will sue him for gross misconduct whilst in post.
As we are ushered into a different room for each scene, we embark on both a physical and a psychological journey, penetrating forever deeper into this war torn landscape. Following the conference we confront a rotating ‘wheel’ upon which the soldiers perch, signifying their truck ride and the ambush. Then curtain after curtain is suddenly drawn back to reveal, in turn, a hotel bedroom, a sumptuously decorated Baghdad bar, and a street at night where a suspected suicide bomber is shot dead.
Stovepipe explores the ways in which a range of people can benefit from war, and we see how journalists, translators, undertakers and prostitutes all gain financially. The play does not, however, carry the simple message that we will all ‘sell our soul’ if the price is high enough.
Indeed, for all its faults, it is hard to picture how stability and reconstruction in Iraq would be aided if Andre’s company simply ceased to exist. The play also suggests that this company might still be better than the British and American Governments who have their own timetables for withdrawal, and hence are totally deserting the mess that they helped to create. Even Alan’s (albeit ambivalent) support for the security company is based upon a judgement as to who would really benefit if he left.
Despite a fine five-strong cast, and a production that scores highly on atmosphere, the play still feels largely argument, rather than character, driven. Nevertheless, with a tremendous ‘showdown’, and a memorial service in which the audience are given hymn sheets and invited to sing Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer, HighTide’s Stovepipe is easily one of the best promenade productions that I have ever seen.