Dinner With Saddam, Menier Chocolate Factory ****

Dinner With Saddam has all the ingredients of a fine feast for its audience to digest, a farce with a political main course, a stellar cast and all served by a very worthy and witty playwright, making the anticipation for Anthony Horowitz’s new play high, writes Fiona Leckerman.

Staged in the magical Menier’s Chocolate Factory, the set is a naturalistic representation of a Bagdad house – the detailing from the tiles on the floor to the ornaments that dress it are so exacting its realism is unnerving. Dinner with Saddam is a comedy, tackling a unique idea; what would happen if the dictator Saddam Hussein popped over for dinner? The title creates an expectation before the play has begun, the dining table centre stage another clue, but Saddam, in the guise of a rather transformed Steven Berkoff, doesn’t rap at the door until the very end of act one, which leaves the wonderful Sanjeev Bhaskar as father Ahmed and Shobu Kapoor as his wife Samira to set the table for much of the high jinks that are about to ensue.

Shobu Kapoor, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Steven Berkoff star in Dinner With Saddam. Credit: Catherine Ashmore

Shobu Kapoor, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Steven Berkoff star in Dinner With Saddam. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

Adhering to farcical conventions there are many obstacles readying to create as much havoc as possible, from no water or electricity to no food and rat poison housed incorrectly in a mixed spice jar. Add in an actor disguised as a plumber (Ilan Goodman), who is secretly in love with Ahmed’s radical daughter Rana (a captivating Rebecca Grant), who is betrothed to her grotesque cousin Jammal (Nathan Amzi). Horowitz gives us characters that are relatable both in their stereotype and their theatrical purpose. There is some predictability to Dinner with Saddam, the dialogue largely teeters on the edge of politic statement, but only rests on top of political sentiment. It’s an enjoyable romp in a seemingly unfamiliar social situation, but it is all too recognisable.

When Berkoff makes his entrance as Saddam, he is part The Godfather and part despotic paranoid Dictator. The Bhaskar-Berkoff repartee is lovely to watch and there is a slight satirical glint in Berkoff’s demeanour reminiscent of Chaplin’s Hitler. While the audience laughs at the implausibility of the action, Horowitz lets the reality of normal Iraqi family life in the midst of an oppressive regime simmer under the surface and he waits for the final course to serve up his strongest point, which is both powerful and terrifying. Dinner with Saddam is a beautifully written, balanced play which is well done, not over-done.

Dinner With Saddam runs until 14 November