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Review of Chimerica at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Tank ManIt is 4th June, 1989. Joe Schofield, a young photojournalist, is hanging out of his Beijing hotel window watching the protests in Tiananmen Square, and unwittingly takes what is to become one of the most iconic photos of a generation; a young man, carrying two shopping bags stands in front of a tank, bringing the entire convoy to a halt. He is then bundled away into the crowd and lost to sight.

Fast forward twenty three years and Joe’s photograph has gained international renown, becoming a symbol of the strength of human spirit against the might of the machine. Everywhere that is, but in China, where it is largely unrecognised. Joe receives a tip-off that the young Chinese man, now known as Tank Man, is alive and living in America.

Having consistently failed to produce since anything as meaningful as that one photograph all those year ago he throws himself with gusto into the search, dragging his friend in Beijing, Zhang Lin, into the quest with him. His interest rapidly becomes an obsession which threatens to destroy his job, his budding relationship with a market researcher called Tessa, his friendship with Zhang Lin and ultimately his own view of himself as a good person.

ChimericaChimerica explores the similarities as well as the differences between the two great global powers, China and America, and questions the issues of morality both on a political and a personal level. What is a Hero? And what, come to that, is Freedom? Through a series of nail-biting twists and turns, we and the characters find our certainties exploded and our consciences stretched to breaking point. Joe is being actively discouraged from his research due to America’s economic links with China. Zhang Lin has been jerked from his beer–and-television induced stupor by Joe’s enthusiasm, and is now being regularly visited by the ghost of his wife, who was shot during the protests. Tessa is finding it more and more difficult to pigeon-hole the Chinese people as she is required to do by the credit card company she works for. As Es Devlin’s stark, cubic set spins, and Finn Ross’s black-and white video and photos flash before our eyes, liberally daubed with red censor pen, director Lyndsay Turner takes us at breakneck pace through a story which is both heart warming and chilling, both thrilling and pathetic.

Stephen Campbell Moore walks a tightrope between likeable and infuriating as the fanatical, blinkered journalist Joe. Benedict Wong is fantastic as the tortured (mentally and physically) Zhang Lin, gradually awakening and really looking around him for the first time in decades. Mel Stanwyck is wonderfully gin-soaked as Joe’s cynical journalist friend Mel, and Claudie Blakely gives us a believable, flawed Tessa, struggling to remain hard-bitten in the face of such idealism. The interaction between the actors is so real, so intimate, that their story seems intrinsic to the great political drama which is unfolding around them.

With a clever, poignant script that swings you from tears to laughter and back again, intelligent, sympathetic direction, dramatic lighting and pounding music, this play seems to combine the best of both film and theatre. It is certainly as slick and polished as a film, but with a raw, biting reality and immediacy which Hollywood could never offer. Put simply, it delivers on absolutely every level. Unforgettable.

Review by Genni Trickett

Harold Pinter Theatre

Booking to 19th October

Saturday 24th August 2013