Review: A Few Man Fridays, Riverside Studios

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

Much has been said about the writing of history, but what of those who get written out of the picture altogether? The forgotten victims of history or ‘unpeople’ in theatre company Cardboard Citizens’ new production are the inhabitants of the Chagos islands, a community of a few thousand people who were forcefully evicted from their home in the late 1960s and early 70s to make room for a strategic US base at the height of the Cold War. It emerges as a mournful, cautionary tale of human collateral in the name of the ‘greater good’.

One of the extraordinary things about this chapter of history is quite how forgotten it has become, eliciting guiltily ignorant surprise from not only myself but the majority of the audience. Cardboard Citizens, whose performing arts work aims to change the lives of homeless and displaced people like the Chagossians, are not quite unearthing a story, but they are urgently holding it up to the light. They have also managed to spin a narrative around this patchwork of document and testimony, a story of one displaced Chagossian that resonates with similar people across the globe.

This is a narrative about islands strongly informed by other island narratives. There are heavy shades of both The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe; the protagonist is an outcast named Prosper who is searching for his origins, while the title itself is an allusion to Crusoe’s native manservant, as well as to the diplomat’s memo that originally made the comparison between the Chagossians and Friday. The connections that Prosper is so preoccupied with in his own life are also a fundamental part of the play’s framework, extending into links between various moments in history, different cultures and works of literature.

There are times, however, when the threads that hold this piece together feel precariously delicate. Adrian Jackson’s admirably ambitious script is attempting to encompass more than this production can hold, leaving it bursting at the seams. The timeline spans from the early twentieth century to the modern day; we traverse thematically from post-colonialism to conservationism, with a few other ‘ism’s along the way. One aspect of this play that demands respect is its refusal to simplify hugely complex issues, but its buds of thought have branched off too widely, leaving it badly in need of some pruning.

Unwieldy and overlong as it may be, A Few Man Fridays rarely fails to engage, even if there may sometimes be a little too much competing for our attention. Fred Meller’s delightfully creative design gives us sliding screens, projected video testimony and giant floating clownfish, while David Baird’s soundtrack is as vibrant as the lost island life being evoked. The cast too are strong, particularly a compelling Ansu Kabia as troubled outsider Prosper. Perhaps most surprisingly, this is also a frequently amusing piece of theatre, providing comic gems including an inspired Desert Island Discs moment and a mean Kirsty Young impression from Nicholas Khan.

There is much that could be streamlined in a production that stretches just beyond its grasp and still feels like it could do with more development. But Cardboard Citizens have achieved that enviable documentary rarity: a piece that marries truth and fiction, testimony and narrative and reaches beyond the confines of its subject matter to get at transferrable, resonant historical issues.

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