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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Lloyd Owen and Simon Kunz/ Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

Blood and Gifts is a thriller of sorts, albeit a political one, in which playwright J.T. Rogers looks back with hindsight and a huge lashing of irony at how the Russian occupation of Afghanistan between 1981 and 1991 and the support offered by America to the mujahideen resulted in the situation both countries, as well as Britain, are presently in.
It's an ambitious, almost cinematic canvas both in size and scope, and it's good to see a new American play dealing with an important global issue. That said, what Rogers offers is the back-story to the current crisis, which makes for a compelling though less pertinent play than it might have been had he written instead about the situation as it exists in Afghanistan today. 
The cloak-and-dagger narrative, reminiscent in atmosphere of some black-and-white espionage thrillers of the 40s, involves the British, the Americans, the Pakistanis and the Russians, and, over the play's 10-year time span, moves from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Washington D.C., where, in the play's best scene, a patronizing senator comes off second-best in his dealings with a mujahideen representative (Demosthenes Chrysan).
Central to the piece is a CIA agent called James Warnock (Lloyd Owen), whose mission in Pakistan is to help the Pashtun rebels in their war against the Russians by arming them with weapons in general and Stinger missiles in particular.
Secret and often devious in his behavior, Warnock is the most complex and compelling of the protagonists whose private life has been marginalised by the all-consuming demands of his job.
More entertaining, though, is a loose cannon of an English representative (Adam James) in Afghanistan and a smooth Russian spy called Dimitri Gromov (Matthew Marsh). All three actors, together with the rest of the cast, are excellent.
Howard Davies' direction fluently keeps the narrative on the move, though the production's overall design by Ultz, while utilitarian, is rather dreary and makes no distinction between Afghanistan and Washington. 
Not the great American play on Afghanistan we're all waiting for, but a useful stopgap.


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