Watch out for the bleeding-heart liberal

This drama skewers the do-gooding in Africa to compelling but chastening effect

The penultimate image of this new play by Matt Charman is Anna Chancellor’s face, a portrait of riven self-torment. Electronically enlarged, it is a good portrait, hard won by this compelling actress who spends two and a half hours hardly off the stage in The Observer, blurring and eventually dissolving her character’s “hard” edges.

I have to say, however, that, as an emblem of the play, a close-up of a bleeding heart would almost have done as well.

Imperial guilt has ached through postwar British theatre: the British empire, the Spanish conquistadors, our conspiracy with American imperialists, first in Vietnam and then Iraq. With The Observer, however, Charman opens up a whole new area of culpability.

This time it is the liberals who stand arraigned, not for standing idly by, as is so often the complaint, but for their do-gooding in Africa and imposition of western values. The law of unintended consequences of which good men in Africa tend to fall foul has been fictionalised before, but this has to be the first time an international election observer has been crucified on stage.

Chancellor plays the observer, Fiona, a bit too opaque and “interesting” to be entrusted with the leadership of the team, but a deputy experienced at getting her way. (Of her bosses – both played, in a nice touch, by Peter Forbes – one is a cynical Brit dying from pancreatic cancer and the other a drunken Dutchman. All that is needed for ill to be done here is for bad men to stand idly by.)

She has been sent to a fictitious former colony in West Africa to monitor the free elections its tyrant has been forced to hold. We think of Zimbabwe, although the dictator here comes over as a social democrat next to Mugabe.

To the surprise of all, including a lazy but lovable BBC reporter called Declan (excellently played by Lloyd Hutchinson), the first round of the elections does not grant the president his assumed landslide and there is a run-off.

It is at this point that Fiona makes her fateful intervention, breaching her own codes of impartiality. She persuades the Africans to allow a fresh registration drive for voters, and then targets rural voters mainly sympathetic to the liberal opposition.

Fiona has been corrupted by idealism, although Charman cleverly lets us see that no motives are entirely pure. She has fallen in love with the ex-colony, yes, but also with Daniel (Chuk Iwuji), her younger, African translator, who hates the tyrant even more than she does.

Remarkably, the president eventually accepts the result (told you that he was no Mugabe). Yet this may not be a glad, confident morning. There are riots, bricks through windows. Fiona’s hotel’s complementary fruit basket arrives minus the strawberries and grapes. Daniel has been injured in the fighting. Worse, he has gone off Fiona in a big way, not only because he has discovered she is married, but also because of her interference in the registration process. It turns out he was in love not with her, but with what he wrongly perceived as her sea-green incorruptibility.

This is a good, solid play, never less than intelligent politically and structurally. The romance-that-never-is between Fiona and Daniel could have been played up more – the two actors are given very little space to create sexual tension, I fear – and the details of the electoral progress speeded up in the long first act, but the storytelling is otherwise accomplished.

Two framing devices work very well. The first is that the observer is herself observed by a time-serving British diplomat called Saunders, whose concern over the delivery of gooseberry jam in his diplomatic bag suggests that his job, which mainly involves intercepting Fiona’s emails, really is a jammy one. Played deliciously by James Fleet, the lazy Saunders emerges as the moral hero. “This isn’t a game we play much any more. Taking sides, I mean,” he tells Fiona. So let’s hear it for the British Foreign Office: it’s the only time you will, I bet.

The other framing device is to set, under Richard Eyre’s smooth, clear direction, the whole thing within the colours and theme music (or close) of the BBC News Channel. Another first. You really can’t accuse Charman of writing clichés.

You might just leave, however, wishing that he’d give us bleeding-hearted liberals a break. This apparently nuanced play ends up slapping Fiona far harder than she deserves.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times