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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Witness

You’re allowed to shout if you feel like it. You’re allowed to sit in a group of middle aged women and shout about Martin Amis all the way to King’s Cross. — Alex talking about a British Rail “quiet carriage”
The Witness
Danny Webb as Joseph and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Alex (Photo: Robert Workman)
After winning the 2008 Bruntwood Prize for Mogadishu, Vivienne Frantzmann is the Pearson Playwright in Residence for the Royal Court. Her new play The Witness looks at a British war zone photographer and the girl he and his wife had adopted from Rwanda.

Joseph (Danny Webb) is now a widower and Alex (Pippa Bennett-Warner) has dropped out of Cambridge University and wants to know more about her early life in Rwanda. In the opening scene set in the Hampstead flat, Alex is coming home for the first time in a year and her father is unaware that Alex has left university. In retirement and living alone, Joseph is going to seed, eating too much cheese and staying at home watching daytime television. He has never learnt to be the authority figure of a parent and treats Alex as an equal with his sardonic humour until she expresses the desire to go to Rwanda.

Joseph has been approached to mount an exhibition of his photographs but he is reluctant to take part. Alex wants him to do it and sets about the picture research herself. When Alex finds the photograph taken of her and the body of her mother in the church where the massacre had taken place, she discovers it has been cropped and that a young boy has been excised from the shot. Joseph explains that he had to make a choice about who to save before the Interahamwe returned to kill the rest. In Act Two, Simon (David Ajala) will arrive in London claiming to be Alex's brother and with his version of what led up to that prize winning photograph.

Simon’s arrival sets up a competition for the affection of the girl and Joseph loses out to the novelty of Alex finding her elder brother. Frantzmann’s writing coupled with absolutely stellar performances from Pippa Bennet-Warner and Danny Webb beautifully express the jaded photographer who finds it hard to settle into retirement and the displaced African girl who is searching for her own identity. The rebellion is Joseph’s when he gets drunk, stays out all night and comes home with a chicken from the next door neighbour’s garden. Alex tries to help Simon to stay in the UK with an application to the Borders Agency but of course he is not allowed to work.

Alex who now wants to be called Frances Mutesi confronts her father with the information from Simon and also blames him for leaving her dying adoptive mother to work abroad and only after her death, retiring. Danny Webb conveys the awkwardness of being thrust into the role of a parent and exhibits some of the psychological damage he has incurred from years of reporting images of great trauma and concern. We expect Alex to have been damaged by her experience in the war and by always being different at school in Hampstead but all three of the people in this play have open wounds.

Simon Godwin’s deft direction uses the stairs on either side of the living room into which the audience have been integrated above the bookcases to give movement. Inbetween scenes there is the click, click, click of a camera shutter. Lizzie Clachan’s set is a living room of the Hampstead flat, with bookcases and scruffy Persian carpet. I often saw the intricate complexities of Alex’s emotions in her face – Pippa Bennett-Warner is a most promising actor. Of course David Ajala’s Simon has to be stiff and formal African and unsure what to expect in England, his inner rage is exposed when he tears up a photograph of Alex’s adoptive mother. Franzmann’s dialogue is excellent and there is humour as well as pain. Danny Webb’s performance is perfect, moving without being overly sympathetic as we realise the price he has paid to provide the media with images that sell magazines.

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The Witness
Written by Vivienne Frantzmann
Directed by Simon Godwin

Starring: Danny Webb, Pippa Bennett-Warner, David Ajala
Design: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting: Oliver Fenwick
Sound: Carolyn Dowling
Running time: Two hourse and 5 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 30th June 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th June 2012 performance at the Royal Court, Sloane Square. London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)

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