It’s been 12 years since the the beginning of the invasion of Iraq by US and British forces, but it is still a topic that creates political debate and divide. So in this new production, Horowitz’s references and writing never feel outdated or forced in their political sharpness as Dinner With Saddam hits all the right notes as a dark and farcical satire.
The premise, which is unbelievably true, sees a family in Iraq who have their evening meal compromised when the President Saddam Hussein himself arrives to have dinner with them. This is apparently an activity Hussein undertook at this time in order to keep moving and evade the allied forces’ tracking powers. While the family already have their own problems, the stakes are raised tenfold when they are laid out in front of their ruthless leader.
The first half of the show sets up the familial situation and plants the seeds for a multitude of gags to be fulfilled. Horowitz is a master hi-jinx-weaver, with the root of a new possible story or mix-up being laid out every few minutes, from a jar marked ‘mixed spice’ filled with poison, to a plumber who isn’t quite who he says he is. The result is that the audience is drawn in to the vast web of possibilities of what could happen and, while the outcomes are sometimes predictable, part of the comedy comes from the audience’s knowledge of what might – and what we are secretly hoping will – go wrong.
Sanjeev Bhaskar gives a wonderful comic performance as the hopeless father and breadwinner of the family, with moments of stupidity played out with just the right amount of honesty, which may have appeared staged in the hands of less able actors. Shobu Kapoor and Rebecca Grant shine as his long-suffering wife and daughter respectively, with the dynamic between the three creating joyful warmth throughout the show.
Saddam Hussein only appears at the very end of the first act to provide his role as forced guest of honour. Steven Berkoff’s performance as Hussein is entertaining and disconcerting. His physicality and the way he uses words are unmistakably his, and stylistically separates him from his fellow cast members on stage. In some ways, this is perfect for the role as it creates a divide between the president and his hosts; when he is on stage the scene is entirely about him, creating an air of fear and awe. However, with Berkoff’s voice so present in the character, at times I found it hard to buy into his character being Hussein and instead was jolted back into reality.
Overall, Dinner With Saddam delivers the big laughs as a farce and doesn’t fail to entertain, the interwoven gags of the narrative creating a joyful chaos that you can’t help but be charmed by. The tension in the second half created by Hussein’s arrival, whether there for the right reasons or not, is undeniably present and changes the dynamic completely. It left me somewhat unsettled, facing the realities of the life of normal civilians of Iraq at that tumultuous time in modern history.
Dinner With Saddam is playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 14 November. For tickets and more information, see the Menier Chocolate Factory website. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.