By Nigel Stephenson
LONDON (Reuters) - In the run-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, says British author and playwright Anthony Horowitz, Saddam Hussein would drop in on unsuspecting Baghdadi families and invite himself to dinner.
He did so to evade his enemies and to show solidarity with his people. In Horowitz's new comedy "Dinner with Saddam", it is the fictional Alawi family's turn to feed the dictator.
It is March 19, the eve of the invasion. Ahmed Alawi, played by Sanjeev Bhaskar, is a hapless construction supervisor on a mosque extension who, apparently alone in the city, refuses to believe a storm of cruise missiles is on its way.
His wife, Samira, played by Shobu Kapoor, tramps the streets looking for increasingly rare food and other essentials.
Daughter Rana (Rebecca Grant) is a student, betrothed to repellent but rich Jammal (Nathan Amzi) but in love with out-of-work actor Sayid (Ilan Goodman).
No food, no electricity and a stinking blocked toilet - the last thing they need is a visit from the self-styled father of the Iraqi people.
Horowitz writes in the program that the Iraq war is the "greatest, unresolved scandal" of his lifetime but that it has become boring. Could comedy and farce, he wonders, make people angry again?
The first act in Lindsay Posner's production sets the scene in the shortage-ridden city. Samira finds candles but no matches, the plumber needs water to unblock the toilet but Ahmed hasn't got round to digging the well.
Slapstick abounds and Bhaskar has some great one-liners (and some that don't work) as the family tries to get by.
Then Saddam arrives and the mood changes.
Steven Berkoff is spell-binding as the hero president. All courtesy to Mrs Alawi, Saddam's menace is manifest when one of his soldiers yawns in his presence.
Happy to discuss the 1988 chemical weapons attack on Iraqi Kurds at Halabja when Rana raises the topic, he asks: "Am I a monster or a man?"
The answer, of course, is both and Saddam spells out how, to some extent, he is the creature of the powers out to unseat him.
The second act isn't all dark - a fart gag had the audience in stitches. But the final scene, as the bombardment begins, suggests there were monsters on both sides with ordinary Iraqis the victims.
"Dinner with Saddam" continues at London's Menier Chocolate Factory until Nov. 14.
(Nigel Stephenson is a specialist editor for Reuters. The views expressed are his own)
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Ralph Boulton)