It’s the least likely setting imaginable for a farce, even a black one. We are in Baghdad, in the Alawai family’s kitchen and dining-room on the 19th of March, 2003: the hours before the American Shock and Awe bombardment. But for a while, we might as well be in any domestic sitcom. The set (by Tim Shortall) is recognizably modern-suburban with just an Arab twist in the windows, which helps; the opening scene is almost Life with the Lyons, as the exasperated wife Samira (Shobu Kapoor) stumps in with the shopping after a frustrating search for basics, and berates her idle husband Ahmed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) who has done nothing about digging the well for when the water gets cut off. Student daughter Rana (Rebecca Grant, the straightest of the characters) quarrels with her father about his plan to marry her to her awful wealthy cousin Jammal. A geeky comedy plumber (Ilan Goodman) has sneaked in, who is actually Rana’s disguised real boyfriend.

There are some sharp lines and laughs; so far, so rom-com. But Anthony Horowitz, creator of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and numerous novels, has thrown real political fury at his first stage play. Chancing upon the curious fact that the dictator Saddam Hussein had a faux-democratic habit of calling on ordinary families – albeit surrounded by heavily armed guards – he supposes that on this perilous night the dictator would have left the palace (of which the USAF missiles would have co-ordinates) to descend on the Alawais. The terrifying, eye-patched faintly camp security chief Colonel Farouk turns up (the splendid Ilan Goodman again, for good reasons which become clear). Farouk is a man reputed to have pulled out his own eye with a corkscrew for a bet, and announces that Saddam is on the way and the neighbours have duly been arrested, just in case. Some plot devices are neatly planted – a mis-labelled jar, two identical bags in the fridge, a too-tight suit – and these duly cause increasing mayhem. Bhaskar does a good Cleesian line in manic-panic, the lumpen fiancé Jammal the traffic policeman is given full comedy revoltingness by Nathan Amzi, and as the first act ends Saddam is among us, with a steel-lined trilby and two armed guards.

At which point Horowitz’ motive starts to pay off. Steven Berkoff, for it is he, is a truly terrifying Saddam: giving him glimpses of affable humanity and plaintive self-exculpation in between executions remembered – and in two cases ordered on the spot. Quite apart from the chaos sometimes going on in the next room, and a scatological interlude with Jamal’s tummy-trouble (this author has written a lot of teen fiction), the focus is on this terrifying giant baby, this killer buffoon. One long and startling riff from him must have given director Lindsay Posner a few hard moments, since it stops the farce action dead: but it does hammer home the points which Horowitz is fizzing with furious determination to make. That the West supported, praised and armed Saddam Hussein for decades; that Britain extended Iraq’s export credit a mere week after the Halabja massacre of Kurds; that Western sanctions killed more children than Hiroshima, depriving Iraq of necessary medicine, sanitation and nutrition. And, not least, that the American ending of the first Iraq war for fear of homecoming body-bags gave the monster dangerous confidence. “Their tears are their weakness” he says, bragging that his own casualties have no names or faces being just soldiers of Iraq. He cites with scorn the list of failed US overseas interventions ever since Vietnam.
All true – as are picaresque facts like Saddam’s early career as a bus conductor, and the fact that you could be thrown in jail for spilling coffee on his photograph. And as the farce resolves – the Alawais survive, pretty much – you cannot leave without sad sour reflection. Not least on Saddam’s line “In a country of so many sects and ethnicities it is essential everybody agrees on one thing. That they don’t want to be tortured”. It isn’t a classic farce, despite some fine laughs, and could do with pacing up a little before it transfers, which I bet it will. But goddammit, it’s a handy prelude to Chilcot, which alone earns it the fourth mouse. Wonder whether Sir John will report before the run ends? Or, indeed, book a ticket?

box office 0207 378 1713 to 14 November
rating four    4 Meece Rating


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