DramaReviewSouth West

There Shall Be Fireworks – Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter

Writers: Simon Day and Martin Bonger
Director: Simon Day
Reviewer:Joan Phillips

Ritchie grew up in Afghanistan in the 60s where he lived with his parents while his father was involved in building a dam. Afghanistan has made an indelible impression on Ritchie – the smells and colours in the bazaars, the music and dancing surrounding him, are still remembered almost 50 years later.

A country of differing landscapes and so many tribes and cultures, for Ritchie this colourful world never left him. But this rich explosion of experiences conceals a collision of tensions hidden barely below the surface, which hints at a country on the edge of breakdown.

Cleverly, so much of the imagery in this production is not what it at first seems. The adult Ritchie recounts his childhood memories sat close to the edge of this tiny, intimate, almost naked, set. The brick-lined walls of the Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre, lit with a dim orange glow, at first give the feeling of a fireside chat. But Ritchie (played by Martin Bonger) becomes less relaxed and increasingly agitated. As Bonger recounts Ritchie’s story, Rachel Duthie’s lighting intensifies and flickers and starts to feel more like encroaching fires ablaze.

Bonger gives the character of Ritchie such edgy intensity that you can almost feel him close to snapping. The pressure intensifies as underlying tensions start to spill out into the open and again the evocative chosen imagery has two conflicting interpretations – the delicate petals from the fields and garlands become the hi-jacked planes in the Twin Towers attack of 2001.

Based on books and true stories, writers Bonger and Simon Day also highlight the role foreign governments had in fuelling the problems of this country over the centuries. Again, not all is what it seems. The efforts of the American construction company to irrigate the valleys and turn them green had the tragic and unintended consequences of making the soil perfect for poppy growing, American culture represented by the homely, innocent baseball bat gives way to becoming a weapon of intimidation in Bonger’s hands as, at first, he swings it for a home run and then around his head to threaten violence on the front row of the audience.

While these visual metaphors work well, others do not: the water tank is a confusing distraction; the tubular chair seems out-of-place and an irrelevance. The title of this short play, There Shall Be Fireworks, feels something like a doomed prophesy of disaster. Bonger conveys his character’s pent-up frustrations with a compelling, edgy intensity but this intense performance and the imaginative, contrasting metaphors while powerful, can end up obfuscating and overshadowing any meaningful message. Overall it can be confusing and at times, like the sudden drift into a TED-type talk, distracting.

The complex cultural and geographical situation of Afghanistan, from being at the convergence of trading routes, covered in difficult and remote terrain and surrounded by at times predatory or peaceful neighbours has produced centuries of history of prosperity and destruction. Produced by Bristol’s The Plasticine Men, Ritchie is allowed to keep his idealistic child’s view of a benevolent view of Afghanistan, but while there is a hint his mother’s view is more realistic, this is not developed. Frustratingly, There Shall Be Fireworks isn’t quite clear what it wants to say but it has some powerful, creative and ambitious moments.

Runs until 1 October 2016 then continues tour | Image: Contributed

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