How Many Miles To Basra?
Charles Hutchinson

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

THE revival of the political play grows apace in Blair's New Britain, fuelled by a crisis of identity and a dearth of moral responsibility (and a ghost of the Tory past in Thatcher The Musical!, a November visitor to the West Yorkshire Playhouse).

In a vital and damning world premiere, the Playhouse tackles the topic du jour, the Iraqi conflict, in How Many Miles To Basra?

Colin Teevan's searing play began life on the radio and now he has developed it for a stage production directed by Playhouse artistic director Ian Brown, a friend from Edinburgh days. The Courtyard Theatre stage has been stretched to the maximum by Jeremy Daker's aptly disorientating desert design. Bright sand, useless, broken slats and slashed and wind-blasted blinds combine with Guy Hoare's intense lighting to wage a relentless assault on the senses, not only of the British soldiers struggling in southern Iraq but of the audience too. The date is April 2003; BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan has stirred up a hornet's nest with his infamous early morning report, and British soldiers are "keeping the peace" in Iraq with shoddy equipment and over-stretched leadership. Loose-cannon Irish reporter Ursula (Flora Montgomery) wants to tell their story - with its shades of American soldiers sinking in the alien mire of Vietnam - against the background of Government lies, military misinformation and a nervous BBC, put on edge by the Gilligan affair.

Feisty, wilful and independent-spirited, yet needing to nurture a relationship with the 3rd Royal Fusiliers, she travels with four soldiers and Malik, an Iraqi translator, on a calamitous unauthorised journey with shattering consequences.

Where Kevork Malikyan's Malek is the sage Shakespearean Fool; Teevan's soldiers are in a mess: Gareth Farr's Freddie is a racist, sexist hard nut; Gwilym Havard Davies's Dangermouse is callow; and Matthew Flynn's commanding officer, Stewart, is losing it. Stuck on foreign fields, their clarity of purpose has blurred to the point of calling all Iraqis "ragheads".

Likewise, where do the margins of truth lie for journalist Ursula; is she driven by zeal or a mere desire for career advancement?

Direction, performances and writing are all top notch in this stark, dark night of a zeitgeist play. How Many Miles To Basra?, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until October 21. Box office: 0113 213 7700. 10:20am Saturday 30th September 2006



- Charles Hutchinson Sep 2006

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