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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Chimerica
Almeida Theatre Summer 2013; Pinter Theatre Autumn 2013

This week Lloyd Evans caused a stir by claiming in The Spectator that theatre critics are far too generous and easily excited. The hyperbole surrounding Chimerica must be driving him demented - and unfortunately for him it is likely to be some time before the stream of praise is dammed.

Chimerica really is exceptional theatre in many ways, as Lucy Kirkwood’s excellent writing is paired with some marvellously inventive direction from Lyndsey Turner.

In a play so dense with ideas, it is difficult to know where to begin. The basic conceit is that jaded American photojournalist Joe Schofield launched his career on a photo he took at the massacre of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

You know the photograph in question, because everybody does: a lone man, holding shopping bags, faces a line of tanks front on, refusing to move. He has become known colloquially as Tank Man, though nobody knows his real identity or whether he survived the massacre.

As China grows in economic power and America loses its footing on the world stage – certainly, nobody can accuse Kirkwood of shying away from the big issues – Joe is given reason to believe that the Tank Man is alive and living in New York. So begins his quest to find one of the most famous and yet most unknown heroes of the 21st century.

In this follow-up to last year's hit NSFW, Lucy Kirkwood is beginning to emerge, quite genuinely, as one of the voices of her generation. Where NSFW was small, this is a sprawling epic, spanning continents and decades, but what they share is Kirkwood's witty, original voice, which rings loud and clear, and her preternaturally well-developed sense of the grey area.

There is, she knows, a gulf of complexity and intention around doing right and doing wrong, and her central character epitomises this perfectly.

Stephen Campbell Moore is charming and sympathetic as flawed hero Joe, who does wrong for the right reasons and right for the wrong reasons and whose obsessions blind him to his own actions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his tendency towards constant self-analysis, Joe wrestles with himself about the nature of his quest: is it masturbatory, attempting to retrace the greatest success of his career, or altruistic, to show the world a real, living hero? We have had quite enough, he argues, of martyrs.

Campbell Moore is just excellent throughout, but the show really belongs to Benedict Wong, whose Zhang Lin is haunted by the ghosts of that June day in 1989 when he lost his youthful idealism and his wife in one hail of bullets.

Claudie Blakley also deserves a mention for her turn as Tessa, who in lesser hands than Kirkwood and Blakley's might become like little more than a love interest, but here is sharp-tongued and multi-faceted.

The whole thing is carried off by Es Devlin’s stunning set design, difficult to do justice to in words alone, which plays on the photojournalist aspects of the show, marking out the photo backdrops with the red lines of an editor.

Not half way through the year it seems a little early to call it, but this really may be 2013’s most unmissable show: an incredible production of an ambitious and nuanced new play, from a writer of remarkable clout.

Lauren Mooney

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Review -   Chimerica - Almeida Theatre 2013

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