I’ll be honest: I wasn’t hugely looking forward to a play about foreign aid. I feared Bang Bang Bang might be fact-heavy and just a little bit preachy. I worried it’d have all the charm and sophistication of one of those damn Bono/Bob Geldof concerts. Indeed, Stella Feehily’s play does begin with a roaming spotlight, which wouldn’t look out of place at a Live Aid gig. But then there’s the most tremendous crash and two terrified girls scuttle on stage, one so scared she’s forgotten how to speak.
What this is not – thank God – is a research dump. Instead, Feehily has wisely decided to hang on, tightly, to a small number of a storylines and a few, fleshed-out characters. The focus is firmly on Irish Sadhbh, a weary long-time aid worker, who has been ‘meeting with warlords for years’. Her area of expertise is the Congo and, this time, she’s taking educated but naïve French intern, Mathilde, along for the ride. Sadhbh’s boyfriend, Stephen – who was so traumatised by his NGO work he began to see phantoms around his fridge - isn’t too happy about the upcoming trip. It’s a tidy plot, which allows Feehily great structural freedom and lends real emotion to her politics.
Some scenes do feel a touch too neat, though. Following that heart-thumping opening, we travel back in time to London, with Sadhbh preparing for her trip and bickering with her boyfriend. If you listen carefully, it’s a little too easy to hear Feehily placing down her building blocks, as the couple’s finances, futures and fears are neatly laid out. But, just as things are becoming a touch straight-forward, the scene is abruptly blotted out a tiny girl soldier, with a huge gun, storms on stage.
These fluid flashbacks are used sparingly but effectively throughout Max Stafford-Clark’s lively production. The audience is never allowed to settle, the chaotic structure reflecting the volatile situation in the Congo. In between these startling disruptions are the set pieces and they, too, are thoughtfully constructed. Whilst visiting a clinic in the Congo, Sadhbh and Mathilde listen to the story of young Amala, a one-time warlord wife and now a terrified exile. Amala whispers her words to her companion, who in turns translates. Sadhbh then questions Amala ‘directly’, but her words, again, must be translated by Mathilde. The layers of removal pile up on each other and we begin to understand the immense challenge faced by the NGO workers; the supreme effort required to break through these obstructions to communication and discover and disseminate the truth.
Feehily doesn’t just focus on the plight of those in the war-torn Congo though – she is equally interested in the sacrifices made by worker Sadhbh, and many others like her. There’s a brilliant, booze-soaked party scene, in which young Mathilde (Julie Dray) and photographer Vin (Jack Farthing) bond over their humanitarian hopes. Wasted and splayed out on the floor, Dray’s feisty but hopelessly naïve Mathilde drawls, ‘Conflict is amaaaazing’. It’s a funny but moving little scene, reminding us that although people might enter NGOs for the right reasons, they are often horribly ignorant of the sacrifices required.
One character all too aware of sacrifice is Sadhbh (Orla Fitzgerald), who is happily married to her job but not her boyfriend. Fitzgerald does find a little warmth in this character, but she could have been slightly softer. Sadhbh radiates self-righteousness and her central dilemma – will she give up her job for her man – feels a touch redundant. As the evidence gathers and the atrocities build, it becomes all too apparent that the only thing Sadhbh will give up for the cause is her life.