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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Almeida Theatre


  Stephen Campbell Moore/ Ph: Johan Persson

One of the most iconic images of the 1980s was the "tank man" in Tiananmen Square, who in 1989 boldly stepped in front of an advancing phalanx of tanks and, with an incongruous shopping bag in his left hand, defied the driver to mow him down. That didn’t happen, and the anonymous protestor disappeared into the crowd. Six photographers captured that indelible image, and in her dazzling new play Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood adds a fictional seventh to the list.

His name is Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore), a photojournalist in his 30s who, 23 years after capturing that heart-stopping moment, hits on the idea of finding out what became of the unknown hero. He persuades his perennially hard-boiled editor (Karl Collins) that it would make a great human-interest story, and after receiving a tip that the tank man may still be living in Beijing he sets off from New York to Beijing with a take-no-prisoners reporter called Mel (Sean Gilder) in search of him. 

On the flight over, Joe finds himself sitting next to a savvy but nervous traveler called Tessa Kendrick (Claudie Blakley) a market researcher, also en route to Beijing to assess the impact of China’s escalating dominance in the commercial sector.

What ensues is an odyssey in 39 fast-moving scenes in which Joe not only becomes involved with Tessa in an affair he’s too self-obsessed to commit to, but endangers the well-being of Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), a Chinese English teacher who was present at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and who tantalises Joe with the prospect of providing a name and whereabouts of the mysterious tank man. 

Divulging too many details of this gripping political thriller (set, incidentally, just before the last U.S. election) would be tantamount to giving away the culprit in an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Suffice to say that while it’s the page-turning plot that propels the piece forward (the play runs for 3 hours with one intermission) Ms Kirkwood provides several side-bars (to use a journalistic term) as the narrative sprints to its powerful climax.

High on her agenda is investigative journalism, as she demonstrates the lengths to which its less scrupulous practitioners will go in order to nail a scoop, regardless of who gets hurt in the process. China’s emergence as an economic behemoth is also a subject Kirkwood addresses, as is the fundamental cultural divide between East and West, despite a dramatic narrowing of the gap in lifestyles.

It’s a rich canvas, played out in an ingenious revolving cube-like set by Es Devlin onto which newsreel footage is projected as well as pertinent black-and-whites stills (some of which are marked up in red pencil the way professional journalists mark up their contact prints before processing them) to locate various locations in New York and Beijing.

Lyndsey Turner’s direction, which goes some considerable distance in emulating the language of cinema, is flawless, as are all the performances – most notably Campbell Moore’s energised yet self-destructive photographer; Gilder’s macho, morally reliable reporter; Blakley as Tessa, who’s tough on the outside but affectingly vulnerable; and most movingly, Wong, the biggest loser in Kirkwood’s epic game of chance and consequences.

Great stuff.


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