They Drink it in the Congo at the Almeida Theatre review: A witty, gritty exploration of post-colonial guilt and privilege

Melissa York
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The cast of They Drink it in the Congo
They Drink it in the Congo

From the fluorescent paint-splashed posters of They Drink it in the Congo, you’d be forgiven for thinking this new production was a warm up show for the Notting Hill Carnival.

In fact, Adam Brace’s second play is a dark, unflinching look at a troubled country and the poster is just one of many misconceptions shattered by the end of the evening. Kids’ fruit juice Um Bongo actually comes from Cumbria, by the way, so no one drinks it apart from us.

Stef, played by Fiona Button, is our angsty, upper-middle class spirit guide, leading the audience through the thorny politics and complicated rivalries ahead.

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She’s a charity worker desperately trying to sign up enough members of the Congolese community in London to participate in Congo Voice festival. If she does, she'll assuage the guilt and trauma she picked up while working as an aid worker in the country by educating the ignorant masses back home about its plight.

If you count yourself among the uninformed, then arrive early enough to read the programme, which explains some of the nuances of this nation’s history; the play itself glosses over these details in four and a half minutes, in which a press officer is briefed prior to a media conference.

The rest of the staging, however, is far more effective. As divisions open up in the British-Congolese community, the floor collapses in on itself, resembling a gaping wound in the middle of the set. Perhaps most impressive is how well the production handles the language barrier; when characters are speaking to each other in Congolais, they do so in an English accent, yet when they speak to others in English, they speak in broken sentences and African accents.

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This allows the audience to hear the duality of immigrant communication, something that’s usually impossible to experience unless you’re bilingual (to clear up any confusion, surtitles above the stage also display the words being spoken).

Comic relief comes courtesy of the villains of the piece, Les Combatants de Londres, a makeshift militia of angry but incompetent young men. Fighting for a free Congo from the safety of London, their antics and terror videos could slot seamlessly into Chris Morris’ jihadi-satire Four Lions.

The story of Congo’s exploitation has never been more relevant, either; where once we extracted Congolese copper to make weapons for European wars, now we export minerals like coltan and tungsten to fund our addiction to technology.

It isn’t easy-watching because there are no easy solutions, but it’s a witty, gritty look at colonial guilt and the centuries-long struggle to establish a true Congo voice.