Chagos 1971

Aug 13 2019 | By More

★★★☆☆    Dark machinations

Zoo Playground (Venue186): Fri 2– Mon 26 Aug 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

Chagos 1971, writer-director Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller’s new work for Black Bat Productions at Zoo Playground, deals with important events in a way that is uneven but has a great deal going for it.

The forced removal of the Chagos islanders at the doup-end of the British Empire is a little-known but utterly shameful story. The inhabitants of the Indian Ocean archipelago were forcibly removed to make way for the US airbase of Diego Garcia. The base, the largest outside the USA, was thought necessary to further the prosecution of the war in Vietnam, but remains in place to this day.

Giorgio Bounous, Katrina Johnston, Angus Bhattacharya, Sophie Boyle and Michael Zwiauer. Pic: Black Bat Productions

The islanders have never been allowed to return, and post-Windrush the situation is even more poignant, with those Chagossians resident in the UK recently being ‘invited’ to leave the country even though they have nowhere to return to.

Brimmer-Beller’s version of events avoids portraying the islanders on stage, instead concentrating on the UK and US plans to evacuate the islands, with a collection of officials calmly dehumanising the Chagossians as they contemplate everything up to genocide.

There are definite hints of The Thick Of It in the portrayals of amoral, self-serving and foul-mouthed functionaries. There are things that do not quite ring true, with some of the dialogue too modern or too Americanised – in particular, no civil servant or other organ of the British establishment would ever dream of referring to a knight of the realm as ‘Sir Greatbatch’ rather than ‘Sir Bruce’ as they do repeatedly here.

This is small beer, however, compared to the overall effect of the dialogue, which has a scabrous swish. There has been a concerted campaign to rehabilitate the British Empire (and not just from the Rees-Moggs of this world), so it is vital to be reminded of the notions of racial superiority that underpinned its very existence; there are a couple of lines that stop you in your tracks.

compulsive energy

What is less clear is whether Brimmer-Beller has assembled a cast that can do his script justice. In one of those Fringe spaces that is more boxroom than ballroom, the performers are almost literally in your face; metaphorically, they are much less so, with some of the acting far too apologetic.

Giorgio Bounous and Katrina Johnston. Pic Black Bat Productions

Michael Zwiauer, as the aforementioned Sir Bruce, has a compulsive energy about him, while Sophie Boyle is relentlessly dark as his assistant Specter. Angus Bhattacharya’s US admiral is largely convincing in his worrying certainty.

Giorgio Bounous, whose hapless Douglas is comparatively more sympathetic, and Katrina Johnston’s ambitious Yerland, do not quite have the same level of commitment and never really convince, which is also true of Patrick Hall’s put-upon junior clerk.

Martina Jodrell, Maaz Abdelrahman and Mica Anderson suffer a little as their framing scenes as island-based operatives are not as integrated into the play as they should be. There is also a tricksy chronological element to the main narrative that does not quite come off.

Such problems aside, this is a confident piece of writing that only lacks for an increase of daring in its execution.

Running time 50 minutes (no interval)
Zoo Playground, High School Yards, EH1 1LZ (Venue 186)
Friday 2 – Monday 26 August 2019
Daily (not Thurs) at 4.10 pm
Tickets and details:

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