Matt Charman is fast developing into a playwright of some repute. The winner of the Verity Bargate Award in 2005, his third play, The Observer, balances huge political and philosophical questions with a beautifully observed character study.
It is set in a fictitious West African former colony, Rob Howell’s set of terracotta blinds and flooring creating a desert feel for this country about to be flooded with democracy. Fiona Russell (Anna Chancellor) is an experienced independent observer sent to ensure the fairness and transparency of the country’s first democratic election, though when the opportunity arises for her to affect the election in a way likely to see the ‘right’ man win, it is hard for her to pass it up.
Whether she should or shouldn’t have taken this action lies at the heart of the piece. In her eyes it serves the people, but where has her impartiality gone, her mission to simply observe? And there is a lot of observing going on. She watches the parties, the parties watch her, the people watch her on television and James Fleet’s tired, embittered yet delightfully sly Foreign Office employee keeps a distinctly underhanded eye on everything taking place, wondering whether or not to intervene himself. Everyone observes and everyone acts on what they see.
The play, much like the election, hinges on Chancellor’s Russell who, when she is first introduced, is cool, calm and disengaged, a picture of dissociated impartiality created over 12 years of field work. As she gets drawn into the situation, cracks in the façade start to open up and the thumping passion that initially brought her into the job boils over as her control is lost. Charman hints at her less than perfect marriage, her loneliness, her emotional needs, which all surface the more her cool fascia is lost.
The little companionship she has comes in the form of Lloyd Hutchinson’s cynical, world-weary journalist Declan and Chuk Iwuji’s idealistic translator Daniel, who has the feel of a boy in a big man’s suit.
Yet it is Daniel who delivers the play’s most crushing, imposing lines, informing the well-meaning Russell: “We don’t need you to save us. Unless we choose our own path, then what is it worth?”