Freedom, Arcola Theatre

There are few titles more vague than Freedom. In Rick Limentani’s play (quite possibly the first ever written about opium farmers in Tajikistan), it’s the name of a fried chicken takeaway that comprises half of Roberto and Pablo Vidiella’s set, the other half being a rural farmhouse. This strong design sets up a bold exploration of East-West culture clashes that is undermined by a frustratingly unconvincing plot accompanied by leaden dialogue.

Limentani’s conceit is that Tajik poppy farmer Benham, disillusioned by the way in which farming is no longer a noble profession but proud to have survived communism and a civil war, is under threat from his thuggish ‘keepers’ and the only solution is for his son Fariad to go to England to bring back a white European woman to pass off as his wife. Somehow this will make the gangsters quake in their boots and Benham’s farm untouchable. Fariad leaves for England on a dubiously obtained university scholarship and strikes up a relationship with his Spanish co-worker Jennifer (not a very Spanish name), whom he persuades to revise for her exams in the tranquillity of Tajikistan.

Writer and director Limentani, whose background is in short films and has never written or directed a play before, has no sense of pace or tension. The mumbled dialogue spanning the two locations via phone calls labours every point and the extended blackouts between scenes are clumsily done. To illustrate the fact that Fariad is in trouble with the police, he walks on stage in handcuffs, sits down and walks off again.

Indranyl Singharay makes Fariad as endearing as he in can in the first half before he becomes a sanctimonious twerp who has no right to take the moral high ground. Rebecca Cobos plays Jennifer, a character who is merely a pawn for the two men, with sincerity. Rian Perle’s patriarch (the scene in which he was draped only in a towel was completely unnecessary) is appropriately obstinate but one-note and the writing doesn’t allow for any real tension in the final stand off with Jennifer.

Freedom wants to say something meaningful about family, duty and the necessary evils that people commit in order to survive, but the most potent message is that it’s really not a good idea to spend your study leave in an isolated mountainside community with the family of your boyfriend whom you’ve only known for five minutes. It’s a play that has the same soporific effect as walking through the Wicked Witch of the West’s poppy field but without the heady aroma.

Freedom plays at Arcola Theatre until February 18. For more details, visit the website.