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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Almeida Theatre


  Ph: Marc Brenner

Over the last three years, who can claim to have been at a dinner party where, at some point or another, the name of the 45th president of the United States didn’t enter the conversation? Well, maybe less so in Britain, but not in certain parts of the United States where, among groups of white, wealthy, well-educated liberals, the all-pervasive spectre of Donald Trump and the question of his calamitous win over Hilary Clinton remains unavoidable and inescapable.
In her new play Shipwreck, American playwright Anne Washburn brings together just such a gathering of Democrats who, for three and a bit hours, obsess over Trump and his machinations, during which the one among them explains, in some detail, why he decided to vote for Trump.
The setting is a farmhouse in upstate New York recently acquired by Jools (Raquel Cassidy) and Richard (Risteard Coope). An unexpected snowstorm makes grocery shopping impossible, leaving the hosts inadequately prepared where food is concerned. And there are also problems with the local electricity supply. 
The unhappy guests include two successful New York lawyers (Khalid Abdalla and Adam James), a couple of arty bohemians (Tara Fitzgerald and Elliot Cowan) and an agonising, half-baked political activist called Allie (Justine Mitchell) who is all words and no action. One of her pet obsessions is Ivanka Trump.
In tandem with the obligatory riffs about Trump’s lies, fantasies, delusions and egocentricity, a second play is waiting to be hatched. It concerns a young Kenyan called Mark (Fisayo Akindae), who in the 80s was adopted by a white couple. In a series of monologues, Mark movingly (and harrowingly) imagines what his life as a slave might have been like and ponders the disconnect of being raised by white parents as well as the blurring of his cultural heritage. He also agonises over how best to bring up his black daughter in a country still nursing scars of racism that refuse to heal. The tenuous link Washburn provides between this racial subtext and the rest of her characters’ refusal to believe what has recently befallen their country is that in the 80s Mark’s conservative father once owned the farmhouse in which the play is set.
Akindae mesmerisingly takes command of the stage whenever he appears and fully engages the audience, because Mark is the only fully rounded character with a compelling backstory.
Though Washburn has an impressive ear for dialogue, what she has created is a collection of recognisable stereotypes you’d expect to find at gatherings similar to this one. Their scattershot conversation shoehorns over three long hours such varied subjects as the evils of MTV, Trump as the anti-Christ, racial discrimination, YouTube videos and the on-going disbelief at the election result.
There are also three big set pieces. One is an enactment of a visit between George W. Bush and Trump in which the former president asks the influential tycoon not to discourage war talk where Iraq is concerned. Another recreates the infamous dinner in which Trump demands loyalty from James Comey, the director of FBI. And a rather visually bizarre climax shows Trump depicted as a Satanic emperor playing power politics in some mythic, elaborately costumed fantasy world. Different in both mood and tone from the rest of the play, these sequences add little to our knowledge or perceptions of a divisive megalomaniac whose behaviour, far from making America great, is splitting his country in two.
Director Rupert Goold, working in a revolving set by Miriam Buether that comprises a round wooden table on ground level and a halo-like circle of light above, reflects the intensity of Washburn’s text and draws committed performances from his excellent cast of nine. What he cannot do is give this meandering work-in-progress a satisfying sense of structure. Maybe by the time it reaches the United States, where it belongs and where it will surely have greater impact, its flaws will be eradicated.


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