In a week that saw the US electoral race kick up a notch as Mitt Romney roundly trounced the incumbent live on air, Rashid Razaq’s new play could hardly be more topical. But even the President’s staunchest opponents might baulk at painting him as a puppy killer as Razaq does here.
Set over the course of one night in 1985, the production deals with a pivotal moment in the young ‘Barry’ Obama’s life: his decision to leave New York to embark on a community relations job in Chicago that would set him on the path of political greatness. But it is more than simply a case of moving cities: it’s the clear recognition of what has to be abandoned in order to embark on that new journey – this unwanted baggage nowhere more embodied than by Obama’s feckless, illegal immigrant flatmate Sal Maqbool, an idealistic fantasist who has been idly dreaming of riding his friend’s corporate coattails on Wall Street.
Though arguably slight, even at a mere 75 minutes, the play offers a fascinating insight into the early years of the world’s most powerful man. It’s anchored by two strong performances and a believable chemistry between the two leads, and nimbly directed by Tom Attenborough. Syrus Lowe ably captures the sense of a man in transition: someone who sees the best in his neighbours and is passionate about social justice, but already has a politician’s ruthlessness and willingness to discard that which no longer suits his purpose. This is leavened with a nice dash of humour – there’s something irresistible in seeing the future POTUS getting his groove on to Grandmaster Flash, and some pleasing – and humanising – references to Obama’s self-confessed geekiness, his stacks of classic literature mixed with a stash of Star Trek novels (this is a man who tweeted Stan Lee about the Avengers movie, remember, and invited Uhura to the White House). ‘Barry’ might genuinely care for his friend, but he also already has the clear-eyed realisation that such companions are an ill-fit for his newly courted circles of ‘serious people’. While the script occasionally makes him sound like he’s at a rally, it’s fairly believable that a fledgling politico would sometimes resort to speechifying, and his performance never resorts to caricature.
As his needy flatmate, Junaid Faiz is likeable and fragile, his desperation tangible as clings to a relationship the other man has outgrown, never quite realising that his increasingly fraught entreaties are already too late. His unravelling as the extent of his lies and weaknesses are revealed is genuinely affecting, although as the story descends into the messy tale of drug deals gone wrong that culminates in the death of Maqbool’s beloved dog, it starts to feel less convincing. Because of course ‘Barry’ is no wicked pet killer: he suffocates the badly injured pooch at the pleas of his weak-willed owner to put an end to its suffering. It’s a message that feels unnecessarily heavy-handed in its symbolism: the compassionate but ruthless man willing to do the difficult thing, to commit an act most of us would recoil from – the Commander-in-Chief in the making.
This one clunking element aside, the play is admirably even-handed in its portrayal of the two men, never demonising Maqbool’s fallibility or Obama’s necessary distancing of himself from it. The intimacy of the piece is well-served by the compact space of the Waterloo East theatre, and Francesca Reidy’s set works well within it. This is of course a story without much in the way of surprises: we know, going in, how it will end, though the epilogue manages to be quietly moving: Maqbool finding some resignation and hard-earned humour in his newly in-demand status as the would-be President’s former flatmate (a fact which the recovering drug addict loyally refuses to exploit, lest it damage his old friend’s political chances); Barry transformed into Barack, stepping onto the stage of history.