Phoenix Play Goes Up in Smoke

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 18th-24th June 2012 under the title Make me a stiff drink, this play is insipid, shallow)

Sanya and Nyambura photo by Phoenix Players
Sanya and Nyambura photo by Phoenix Players

Last weekend at Phoenix, curtains fell on yet another original Kenyan play about a politician. Smoke by Lui Nzomo, premiered at Phoenix Theatre on 25th May, directed by George Mungai and I managed to watch the matinee show- the second last- on Saturday 9th.

The play opens with a scene between the cabinet minister Smoke (Arthur Sanya) and Maria (Diana Nyambura). At her first entrance, I think she is playing the role of a child, only to learn that she is Smoke’s mistress. What comes across as childlike behaviour is in essence, Nyambura’s rendition of the coy and cunning mistress.

In the next scene, Smoke goes home and tells his wife, “I’m seeing someone else,” thereby killing, within ten minutes of the play, the intrigue of a clandestine affair and the potential (albeit shallow) thrill of ‘will he or will he not get caught?’

His wife Mary (Nimo Kanja) reacts with what I assume to be an outburst of anger and the inexplicable sentiment, ‘will she tolerate me as much as I tolerate you?’ Then she vows that the other woman will not have any share of their joint success. (I realise later that this is actually the end of the entire matter of the clandestine affair.)

Kigondu and Githinji photo by Phoenix Players
Kigondu and Githinji photo by Phoenix Players

In the next scene, Smoke’s brother Smart (Martin Kigondu) discovers a document in Smart’s briefcase, which is in one way or another worth a lot of money stolen by Smoke from the government. Smoke’s henchman Kokoto (Job Githinji) finds Smart snooping, snatches the document and they get into a semi-playful game of ‘catch’ in which Smart tries to get it back. Kokoto promises to be silent only if Smart will give him a share of the spoils.

It is clear to me by the end of this scene that the plot has no mileage. For the rest of the time- one excruciating hour- I just sit there, wondering how Mungai picked this play, the audience around me in equally bewildered silence, save for the occasional half-hearted laugh here and there from those members of the audience who feel obliged to laugh either out of sympathy with the cast or out of self-deceit.

The performance ranges from insipid recital of text to slap-stick over-acting, the latter culminating in a tirade of noisy chewing and choking on an imaginary bone by Polisi (Brian Munene- understudy), a feeble attempt at tickling the funny bone of an obviously numbed audience.

Margaret Karanja however, puts as much gusto into the role of Madam Afande as she did in her memorable role as Ruth the nanny, in the Phoenix adaptation of Pirates of Penzance which ended in January, but alas, to no avail. No amount of good acting can breathe life into two-dimensional, inaccurately-stereotyped characters in a far-fetched plot.

Smoke, who comes across as a petty criminal- nothing like our shrewd politicians- at one point goes on his knees begging the police for mercy (as if a cabinet minister in Kenya has ever pleaded for mercy because he has stolen public funds!) then the policeman smugly responds, “theft of property is twenty years”.

In the words of the French dramatist Jean Racine (1639-1699), in theatre, “to speak is to act” (dire c’est agir) meaning that every word is an action and every action moves the plot. But this play is clattered with such bland statements as: “I have had it, he has not seen all that I have done for him, it is definitely my turn to win.” “Why do I feel like a rabbit in front of a lion” “So I’ll cook and clean while you go to meetings with her?”and unnecessary scenes like Smoke’s press conference.

Smoke is released from prison and goes home where he celebrates with a bottle of J&B and I find myself wishing for the actors that it is real whiskey- anyone would need a stiff drink to get through this.

The play attempts to place itself in the Kenyan tradition of political satire, with a ‘police and robbers’ twist. However, it has neither the humour of satire nor the intrigue of a thriller and its plot is as shallow as it is implausible. The play is, quite literary, neither here nor there.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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