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The Theatreguide.London Review

Dinner With Saddam
Menier Chocolate Factory   Autumn 2015

Anthony Horowitz, known best as a writer of children's books and TV crime shows, has written an extended TV sitcom episode and put it onstage. 

It's quite a good TV sitcom episode, with more legitimate laughs than a typical half-hour. But, despite an unusual setting and a few dark touches, it is wholly conventional and by-the-numbers, built on situations, character types and gags that go back at least as far as Lucille Ball. 

Every domestic sitcom ever has eventually had its Dinner Party Gone Wrong or Panic Over Important Guest episode, and that's what we have here. 

That this version is set in Baghdad on the 2003 night that the US bombing began, and the guest is Saddam Hussein (who actually did sometimes entertain himself by dropping in unannounced in random ordinary homes), adds some specific jokes and plot complications, but most of what goes on is generic. 

The family, with absolute predictability, is made up of blustering but ultimately ineffectual father, quietly competent mother and rebellious daughter. Even before the unexpected guest appears, they are involved in complicated comic situations. 

Daughter hates the cousin her parents have chosen to be her husband and has her own boyfriend, who has slipped into the house disguised as a plumber. The cousin is a total idiot and possibly a government informer, the toilet is blocked up, and there's a big rat scuttling around the house. 

I will now just offer a list of items that appear in the play, in the confidence that your knowledge of sitcom formulas will enable you to guess how they fit in: rat poison in a spice jar, a too-tight suit, a dead body, an incriminating document, the pretend plumber pretending to be a security man, a bad case of flatulence, a very large turd in a plastic bag (don't ask). 

There are an abundance of double-takes, moments of wild panic and tightly timed attempts to keep the wrong people from seeing the wrong things. And in the middle of it is the wild card of Saddam Hussein, imagined as the kind of madman who may switch from gracious guest to Queen of Hearts 'Off with his head' rage and back again in mid-sentence. 

At the centre of the play is Sanjeev Bhaskar as the father, utilising his years of experience playing essentially the same role in The Kumars and other TV shows to find all the comic bluff and comic panic in the character. 

Shobu Kapoor and Rebecca Grant as mother and daughter walk easily through their easy roles, Ilan Goodman plays two parts so adroitly that you might not notice it's him both times, and Nathan Amzi can do little with the clichéd role of the idiot cousin. 

And then there's Steven Berkoff as Saddam. Unrecognisable in bad wig and pounds of facial putty, Berkoff is generally limited to barking out sinister one-liners, though he occasionally slips into a close approximation of Brando in The Godfather. 

By far the weakest element in Horowitz's script is the attempt to inject the political/historical setting into the sitcom format. In a programme note the playwright makes his political position clear – he considers the US and UK hypocrisy, dishonesty and wartime atrocities far worse than anything Saddam did – and he allows the play to stop dead in the second act while Berkoff as Saddam lectures his hosts with a litany of Western pre-war and war crimes. 

Director Lindsay Posner, who has done a pretty good job of sustaining the sitcom silliness up to that point, can do nothing to make this interruption dramatic or to regain the comic momentum once it's over, and the play finds its way to a limp conclusion only by blithely killing off another of its characters.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Dinner With Saddam - Menier Chocolate Facory 2015

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