'The White House Murder Case' or 'Miss Scarlet in the Oval room...'
'The White House Murder Case', Jules Feiffer
Orange Tree Theatre, Monday 15th October
Written for Time Out
Dodgy intelligence documents, an unpopular war and a government desperate to save face ahead of a general election. It all sounds horribly familiar, but Jules Feiffer (best known for his Pulitzer-winning comic strips) wrote 'The White House Murder Case' back in 1970. Feiffer isn't just a prescient playwright, though: he's dramatically ambitious, utterly original and viciously funny.
Director Christopher Morahan handles this complex satire with panache. The combat sections, which unfold in Brazil, take place on a tiny platform, blanketed in vegetation and bathed in harsh green light. Such brazenly camp touches underline Feiffer's bleak humour, while also emphasising the absurdity of war.
The parallel scenes in the White House, during which the President and his advisors try to put a positive spin on the deaths of 750 American soldiers, sparkle with perfectly pitched malice. Paul Birchard is particularly effective as the frazzled research assistant Professor Sweeney. He looks like a harmless geek - all skewed glasses and straggly hair - which only makes his cruel indifference to human casualties all the more shocking.
But the two scenarios, so different in tone, fit awkwardly together. The bizarre jungle scenes, in which the soldiers lose their limbs and minds, feel too abstract up against the ice-cool banter of the White House. An additional murder, midway through the play, over-complicates matters, sending the show into Poirot territory. The subtle balance is lost; the satire shifts from being excruciatingly believable to entertainingly absurd.