I hadn't planned on seeing Matt Charman's The Observer despite the good reviews, but I guess it's not selling as well as hoped because I got an email through with a special offer to see it for £10 so figured I might as well. I'm very glad I did, as this was great. Nothing to do with the troubled Sunday newspaper, the Observer of the title is Fiona (Anna Chancellor) who is in an unnamed African country as part of the international team supervising their first-ever democratic elections. After 12 years in the job, at the start of the play Fiona is once more passed over for promotion in favour of the clearly less able Henrik (Peter Forbes) and ends up doing most of the work for him. Whether this is the turning point or not, something makes her step away from her impartial role, albeit gradually. Although the elections are being held within reasonable parameters, there's no expectation that anyone other than the incumbent, corrupt President will win. But the vote goes to a second round and Fiona sees a way, staying just within the rules, to enfranchise more of the opposition's supporters and speed the nation's progress up with a new government.
Chancellor is excellent as always, portraying this idealistic, often exhausted woman who steams through with her ideas, disregarding the fact that the people may need to take things in their own time. There was one of those awkward moments when an actor feels the need to break character because of a distraction in the audience, but she dealt with it briskly and without any fuss: Someone was repeatedly squeaking their chair during a tense scene, and Chancellor quickly apologised to the actor about to speak, held her palm up to the audience and said "that noise." Fair enough, other actors have been known to make more of a meal of these things, and the squeaking did indeed stop immediately. Elsewhere, Chuk Iwuji is very good as Daniel, the translator who is initially rather smitten with Fiona, but gradually becomes uncomfortable with her methods. Lloyd Hutchinson as Daniel's father and Aïcha Kossoko as the chair of the Electoral Committee are memorably funny in fairly small roles. Unbeknownst to Fiona, she has a "shadow" - Saunders is a minor Foreign Office diplomat who has been monitoring her calls and emails, and his reports to his superiors form a narration to the play. James Fleet puts in a likeable performance of a man out of his depth but genuinely concerned for the people of the country he has come to see as home, and when he and Chancellor finally meet at the end it will prove to be a devastating encounter for her.
Charman's play and Richard Eyre's direction find all the drama, tension and often humour in a subject that could well have resulted in a dry political play, and with Rob Howell's simple and effective set design and uniformly good performances this is a not only powerful but also constantly entertaining play about not just the specific situation, but also in general the way that bad things can come from doing the "right" thing.
The Observer by Matt Charman is booking until the 3rd of September at the National Theatre's Cottesloe.