Kebab, Royal Court Upstairs, London

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As slice-of-life plays go, this one is particularly gristly. In Gianina Carbunariu’s play, Madalina, Voicu and Bogdan are young Romanians who head for the west, specifically Dublin, to make something of their lives. They combine their assets all right, but what they make is a sordid, morally bankrupt mess.

One problem with Carbunariu’s play is that, although it is disturbing, it is never really surprising. From the moment we first see Madalina and Bogdan on an aeroplane, talking of their dreams, we know that none of this will come to pass. Madalina is a bubbly teenager flying in to join her boyfriend Voicu, who, she trusts, will find her a job in a shop “selling really cool clothes and shit”. Bogdan is a film student with a vague plan to study visual arts.

In fact, Voicu finds Madalina a job in a kebab shop, but soon decides she would make more money selling her own flesh. It is while acting as her pimp that he encounters Bogdan, who is by now struggling to come up with a film project for college. A plan forms. Bogdan will film Madalina for his project, while at the same time using his skills to get her into the lucrative business of sadistic internet pornography.

The play touches on the disturbing problem of eastern European girls getting trapped into prostitution and there is no doubt that Carbunariu can write. Orla O’Loughlin’s production is grippingly delivered by Matti Houghton, Laurence Spellman and Sam Crane.

But the piece tackles too many targets in too little depth. Most interestingly, it considers the vexed transactions between east and west: the west may exploit cheap labour, but Carbunariu also boldly suggests that there are those from the east who deliberately set out to grab as much as possible. This is a fascinating area morally, politically and economically. But the play then heads off into the sexual exploitation theme, deliberating on issues such as the limits of art and pornography. In so doing, it leaves no space for subtlety or intricacy. We lose any sense that these are real people struggling to make a life in a real city. In the end the play, like its characters, veers off into extremity.

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