Dubailand, Finborough Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Arabs, one of the characters in Carmen Nasr’s new play Dubailand states, are building the future in Dubai. A modern metropolis in the middle of the desert, a monument to gaudy excess. At least, for the Westerners who come to play there.

The marketing executives who sit to discuss how to promote the Emirate’s latest skyscraper complex know that the experience is very different for the workers, many of whom are migrants from the Indian subcontinent, who are constructing buildings at ever-increasing rates. Central is Jamie, a mid-level executive played by Nicholas Banks as a bumbling clot whose eyes begin to open as his journalist friend Clara (Mitzli Rose Neville) digs into a world of forced labour and cover up.

While the breezy, fact-averse marketing speak of the executives in Nasr’s dialogue veers towards cliché, their blasé callousness following the apparent suicide of one worker – caught on a webcam Jamie had set up as part of a promotional scheme – brings echoes of slavery from other eras. Joking about the death brings home how the workers who risk their lives to construct Dubai’s cityscape are treated as some form of expendable commodity.

Banks is effectively watchable as a man caught between the temptations of his new, lavish lifestyle and the idealistic, morally engaged young man Clara reminds him he used to be, and could be again. Through his eyes, Nasr’s script neatly avoids preaching as it condemns, Jamie’s naïveté and charm affording Neville’s journalist the space to act as the play’s outspoken moral conscience.

As construction worker Amar, Adi Chugh forms the lynchpin of the production, dreaming of being reunited with his young child, remembering the fantasy world he painted her about a mysterious, mystical Dubailand. While he has frequent interactions with Varuna Sharma (as a fellow worker and several other roles), ultimately his performance is a solitary one, and one infused with sadness.

Anthony Lamble’s design, in place for the Finborough’s current main show, also works well here, expressing the Dubai skyline as a stark collection of coloured neon tubes. Together with Bex Kemp’s white perspex blocks which form furniture and construction materials, the effect is reminiscent of the 1980s, emphasising the triumph of hedonistic excess for the few over the welfare of the many.

Necessities of the Finborough’s small space mean that some scene changes cut into the momentum that the play needs to maintain, but ultimately Carmen Nasr succeeds in creating a world that shines a little light on a world that embodies modern-day colonialism in the heart of the desert.

Running in repertory at the Finborough Theatre until February 21.