Review – The Observer, National Theatre

Friends and family night at the Cottesloe. Richard Eyre in the house. The cast of Gethsemene ensconced up in the balcony (I didn’t introduce myself). I think I even spotted Jancis Robinson sipping a cup of water (not entirely surprising given the wine they serve at the National bar).

The Observer, by Matt “Five Wives” Charman, follows a team of international election observers as they officiate over the first democratic elections in an anonymous West African republic. Fiona Russell (Anna Chancellor) begins detached, convinced of the value of her impartiality but is soon driven by the inhumanity of the current regime to become a participant. This transformation is superbly crafted by Charman, and what gives the play its power: in the opening stages, Russell’s detachment seems uncaring, her proselytizing as to the importance of impartiality self-important and ridiculous; by the end – by which time she has become a participant, or even a belligerent, in the struggle between the two factions – her intervention seems monstrous.

This is a superb production of a truly thoughtful and carefully constructed play. Anna Chancellor is a revelation: best known for her role in Four Weddings and a Funeral and far from stand-out in Never So Good, here she is wonderful, beautifully presenting the character’s authority, competence, passion and her exhaustion and vulnerability. Chuck Iwuji – probably best known for his roles in the RSC Histories – is excellent as translator Daniel and it’s between the two of them that we have the most moving and thoughtful scenes of the production.

James Fleet has a thankless job as a British civil servant, a role which mostly consists of standing downstage centre and narrating as stage hands clunk on and off with furniture behind him. This is, in fact, the only complaint: the Cottesloe might be the “smallest, the barest, the most potentially flexible and (for some people) the most potentially influential” theatre in the National’s stable, but it’s also one which doesn’t do well with complex sets and scene changes, which the Observer had in abundance. This production could have coped with an upgrade to the Lyttelton, but it also could have worked beautifully as a cut down studio piece more suited to its venue.

A superb production.

Update: Best available tickets now available for £10 until the end of the run. Book here.