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Friday 9 August 2013

Chimerica, play by Lucy Kirkwood, Harold Pinter Theatre, London 7* out of 10

Beijing, Tienanmen Square, on 4 June 1989.  From the balcony of his hotel room, the young American photo-journalist Joe Schofield  (Stephen Campbell Moore) takes a picture of an iconic moment in the attempted uprising of Chinese students against their government.  23 years later, shortly before the 2012 US presidential election, he returns there on another assignment. He seeks out his fixer from former days, Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), who leads a lonely existence as an English teacher. Lin has never been able to get over the death of his wife.  Returning to America, Joe gets it into his head to find out about what happened to the "tank-man", the man with the shopping bag on Joe's photo from 1989, who refused to budge when a tank advanced. Is he dead? Is he living incognito in the United States? Times have changed and the part symbiotic part adversarial relationship between China and America, which inventive International Relations professors Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularik have named Chimerica, will intervene into the lives of Joe and the people he involves in his search.

Lucy Kirkwood has written an ambitious new political play with a well thought out and intricate plot and some great lines.  In contrast with the plot, key characters such as Joe and his sidekick Mel (Sean Gilder) are written as rather flat stereotypes, with whom it is difficult to get an emotional connection. Exceptions are Joe’s love interest the marketing expert Tessa played with the right range of emotionality and wit by Claudie Blakley, his editor Frank (Trevor Cooper) who gets some of the best lines to deliver with feeling. There is a very competent ensemble cast with Benedict Wong deserving a special mention for a moving performance. Director Lindsey Turner knows how to make the action move forward so that the length of the play never leads to boredom in the audience. Award winning designer Es Devlin’s has come up with the best set I have seen in a while: it perfectly supports the direction and pace of a plot moving among time and space. 

This co-production with Headlong is the most successful transfer from the Almeida Theatre to London's Westend in some time. Despite “Chimerica’s” shortcomings, it was good to see a sell-out audience of all ages enjoying this intelligent and topical new play.

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