What do a dirty weekend, violent hallucinations and a deportation room have in common? According to Rashid Razaq – a pair of handcuffs. The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, directed by Nicholas Kent, puts an unusual domestic relationship and an international conflict side by side in this brave satire documenting an individual’s crisis of identity.

Punctuated by short video clips of Blair, Bush, Brown and Obama telling us just how necessary intervention really is (or was) in Iraq, we are taken from bedroom to bar and from an immigration detention centre to the streets of Baghdad. As the set changes, shifting the time and place of the play, these news footage clips are projected onto the back wall, predictably striking a darker chord with their intervention of the real. A shared anger at the British government certainly echoed throughout the north-east London auditorium with verbal response throughout the play and an eventual standing ovation as it drew to its unexpectedly tender close.

At the centre of the action, Razaq gives us the relationship between Lydia, a wealthy British businesswoman and Carlos, an Iraqi asylum seeker. Through a collection of episodic scenes we learn that Carlos has been forced to leave Baghdad and his wife and young daughter as a result of sectarian violence; his wife, Sahar, is a Shia and himself a Sunni. Despite the fast-pace effected by the frequently changing set, Ellan Parry’s design encompassing the neat place-changing device of a three-piece back-drop on a pulley system, the production at times felt a little clunky with certain conversations standing out more than the play as a whole.

A humorous and tender central performance from Nabil Elouahabi, yet the dry and somewhat unsubstantiated relationship between Carlos and Caroline Langrishe’s Lydia seemed to limit the depth with which Carlos’ personal crisis could be comprehended.  Nonetheless, Sara Bahadori and Selva Rasalingam gave an energetic support to this central instability and Kent’s unpretentious direction successfully allowed for believable shifts of the characters in time and location. Yet, though neatly tackled by actors and director, satire seemed to sometimes mask what could have been some interesting debate.

A handful of cracking one-liners certainly had the audience in stitches, the mispronunciations and confused social cues of Carlos at the centre of the comedy. Yet, all in all the humour needed for the contrast of the more tender scenes to hit the right note was often left wanting. When sex in a posh hotel room and warfare are placed back to back (we’ve seen that one before), one would hope for a little more focus to keep us connected with the action, which was often unstable, moving outwards too swiftly when we’d barely time to settle into one attitude. We heard discussion regarding the position of women, religion, belief, fear… this classic list goes on further than perhaps it should, yet never missing that laugh: Carlos seeks refuge ‘somewhere Godless’, claiming Britain seemed the perfect place.

The final five minutes however, seemed worth the wait for the touching final scene between a broken-down Carlos and Lydia, back in their bedroom with the handcuffs. Ending with such tenderness, I was left wondering where the satire at the beginning of the play really fit in. I’m sure many would have happily sat there for 85 minutes watching the earlier scene in the immigration detention centre as opposed to the first scene’s bedroom farce which, though entertaining, wasn’t by far as gripping.  Each scene clearly provided its own, small play in itself and I’d have liked to have had a more limited selection of these to allow a closer look in.

The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 16 August. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo by Judy Goldhill.