Another day, another ethically complex play about our relationship with African nations. Perhaps even more than The Swallowing Dark at Theatre503, Sally Woodcock’s debut play leaves us seesawing with moral uncertainty. It’s questions about the principles of aid – undoubtedly, but not categorically, a good thing – are as urgent as they are neglected.
Woodcock’s point is that the nature of such aid, not to mention the motivations behind it, is as important as the mere fact of it. To borrow momentarily from Brass Eye, there exists good aid and bad aid. It is remarkably easy for the hand that giveth to be the same one that ultimately taketh away.
She makes it with a debut that, though very rough around the edges, demonstrates barnstorming promise. Here is a play that manages to be truly epic in scope with only three characters onstage; a play packed with really potent, purposeful metaphors that contains at least one scene that could rival Bond’s baby-stoning for firebranding. As debuts go, I’d place it right alongside Polly Stenham’s That Face and Andrew Sheridan’s Winterlong for sheer guttural gutsiness.
That said, the jagged qualities are evident enough to cause Fanta Orange to snag along the way. Woodcock’s plotting is over-extensive. There is a more purified play within and, even if it’s never baggy, Fanta Orange feels bloated. Perhaps more perceptibly and immediately problematic is Woodcock’s tendency to overwrite speech where sparsity and silence would work better. Her best scene, in which a woman miscarries and immediately suckles another’s baby, is undermined by the calm rationality of words used where action and emotion, visceral as they are, would more than suffice.
Fanta Orange’s starting point, based on an Amnesty International report, is Regina’s rape by British soliders, a stark illustration of a nation abused by its supposed sympathisers Regina works as a housemaid to Roger, a Kenyan farmer whose child she is carrying when he meets – and soon proposes to – Ronnie, in Kenya to study local soil-eating practices. Her impulse to devote herself – and her trust fund – to supporting the local community drives the play and her charity slides into self-interest and Africaphilia. Though she attributes the natives with unwarranted halos, Ronnie ends the play with Roger’s farm, Regina’s first-child, a new and moneyed Kenyan partner and a sense of self-worth, albeit deluded and blind to the destruction she has caused.
The title relates to her obsession with milk, which is difficult to supply in Kenya without serious health risks, as opposed to the chemical-filled, but safe and abundant, eponymous fizzy drink. It’s another snappy metaphor from Woodcock, who also makes extremely clever use of the phrase ‘Nusu nusu’ – yes and no – throughout.
Gareth Machin can’t entirely heal the textual potholes, but he certainly delivers an engagingly bumpy ride and, rather ingeniously, folds the whole thing onto the tiny Finborough stage. Alex Marker’s design, full of hidden compartments and closing panels, easily manages the multiple locations without sacrificing atmosphere or landscape: a perfect pastel-blue sky wraps around the space.
Jay Villiers, though tripped up by his Kenyan accent too often, provides the standout performance as Roger. There are moments where his brain seems to stall, caught between two possible answers. Kehinde Fadipe is tender and dignified as Regina, while Jessica Ellerby catches the supercilious bluster of Ronnie without scuppering it with external judgement.