Dido’s Bar – The Factory, Royal Docks, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Hattie Naylor

Director: Josephine Burton

Writer Hattie Naylor and director Josephine Burton’s new immersive theatre and music production, Dido’s Bar, has promising components. These include the location, a magnificent dilapidated old factory hidden away in the heart of London’s Royal Docks, excellent original music from composer Marouf Majidi, and strong performances, particularly from Lola May as the eponymous Dido and Tuukka Leppanen as sinister nationalist Turnus. But somehow the show, a modern-day retelling of Virgil’s epic Latin poem the Aeneid, never quite comes together in the way it should. Some bits are good, a few elements are great, but overall, it is a bit of a disappointment.

Roman goddesses Venus (Pricille Grace) and Juno (Georgina White) manage two very different metropolitan cabaret bars. In the edgy part of town there is the louche and downmarket Dido’s Bar, whose star-turn is the asylum-seeking vocalist who lends her name to the establishment. It is not exactly a speakeasy, but it runs close to the wind. Think of the kind of locale where all the mercenaries hang out in Star Wars movies. Enter Trojan refugee and musician Aeneas (Lahcen Razzougui). He lost everything when the Greeks invaded his homeland and is desperate to find a country to take him in. Luckily his musical fame precedes him (his poster is pinned to the wall in the bar toilets) so, casting a blind eye to his undocumented status, Venus takes him on as cabaret co-host. Dido and Aeneas soon embark on a passionate affair, driven by their shared experiences of loss and refuge-seeking, but is their love doomed even before it starts?

Meanwhile, in the upmarket side of town is the flashy Bar Latinus (think Rick’s Bar in Casablanca). Hosted by the grief-stricken Matina (Gemma Barnett), whose pain at the recent loss of her father is not wholly assuaged by controlling and jealous fiancé Turnus, it is a much more desirable place to work. Once Aeneas’s asylum-seeker papers are in order, Venus and Juno suggest he upgrades from Dido’s dive. Aeneas has a tough choice to make. Move on to bigger and better opportunities on the nice side of town or remain true to Dido? If you have read the original you will know the outcome but suffice to say there is more than a little blood, gore, and betrayal to enjoy in the journey.

Compressing the Aeneid’s twelve books into a two-and-a-half-hour show is a challenging task. Writer Naylor has sensibly stuck with a single storyline focussing on four key characters and the scheming and unscrupulous goddesses. There is still however, quite a lot of heavy lifting to be done in the storytelling. The show’s songs have to carry much of the narrative and emotional weight, and if you cannot hear them properly, which in the cavernous factory setting is often the case, following what happens becomes a trifle difficult. The result is a story whose events sometimes feel bitty and unconnected.

London’s docklands, once the heart of a global trading network, is a great site-specific location for a work that explore themes of international immigration. International flights constantly arriving and departing from London City Airport provide an atmospheric (if noisy) backdrop. Director Burton makes inventive use of the venue’s immense space, with scenes unfolding behind a well-stocked bar, on stage with a tremendous live band, and at various tables scattered amongst the audience. But despite superb lighting design from Peter Small and valiant efforts with a haze-machine, the factory is just a little too cavernous to achieve the kind of cabaret intimacy the narrative suggests. Sometimes one has to strain to see and hear what is going on.

Does Dido’s Bar say anything new about immigration? The shows best song, a duet between Dido and Aeneas called Panic Boats, certainly captures the horrendous experience of escaping war-torn lands in over-crowded vessels. “We are the paper trauma is written on,” Dido tells Aeneas shortly after their first encounter, and in the storytelling, we can see why so many asylum-seekers seek shelter in Europe. The menacing xenophobic Turnus provides a chilling expression of how right-wing politicos weaponize immigration for their own ends. The themes are not new but are worth hearing all the same. The parallels with the Aeneid are not exact, but there is enough tragic about modern-day immigration to make the comparison useful.

May, recently seen at The Bridge’s The Southbury Child, has a tremendously expressive voice, as does Leppanen, the latter shown to best effect in the creepy pseudo-nationalist anthem This is My land. Razzougui is a better actor than singer, but his turn as the determined Aeneas has plenty of charisma. Majidi’s music has huge variety, with the second half’s swing and jazz feel perhaps a little more memorable.

A warning: the venue is cold, so bring a blanket.

Runs until 15 October 2022 then continues to tour

The Reviews Hub Score

The Aeneid updated.

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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