Review: Exploration of idealism poses difficult questions in Coventry show

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Choke at Theatre Absolute: Shop Front Theatre, Coventry

Graeme Rose as Rob. Picture: Andrew Moore
Graeme Rose as Rob. Picture: Andrew Moore

Choke is the sixth of nine plays dedicated to the question: are we where we are? This one is the longest so far, and a two-hander instead of the usual one. It poses difficult questions about idealism, and in particular what and why we give as part of some ostensibly higher cause. Is it possible to change the world through ‘good’ deeds?

Stu (Matthew Wait) is a successful businessman, head of a giant pharmaceutical company. One night his old mate Rob (Graeme Rose) comes banging on the door of his house, somewhere in the cold north of Britain. Rob is in a bad way. He’s hitch-hiked in the snow and ice all the way from Cornwall just to ask Stu to save him from some mysterious illness. It’s not quite clear what that illness is: is it physical, or is it psychosomatic? He’s got plenty to feel bad about, but then so has Stu. This is a meeting not only of two men who go back a long way, but of ideals, crushed and (arguably) redeemed.

Each carries a burden of history and of responsibility for at least one innocent death. Stu’s company sold drugs on the basis of false claims that led to the death of a young girl. Rob once saved and then abandoned a young refugee woman and her son. But it’s not all bad: Stu’s company has now found a cure for HIV Aids and he’s planning - out of altruism or guilt or both? - to give this drug to the world for free. Rob wrote a couple of successful books, one about the refugee girl and one about the evils of global capitalism, the latter of which traded specifically on Stu’s former company and did him some harm as a consequence. So, while each has paid a high price in some ways, each has also gained or will gain substantial rewards in kudus and cash.

Still, Rob’s illness is causing him a lot of pain. He keeps choking and can’t seem to shake it off, and it has effectively ruined his life. He wants Stu, who once trained as a surgeon, to literally cut him open on the kitchen table and take it away. Much of the action in the tense, verbal sparring match that reflects a kind of tortured male bonding, is in the accusations each can bring against the other, as well as their need for forgiveness. Behind these tensions lie not only the tragedies of the women’s deaths and the exiles each of the men has suffered afterwards, but the death of something else, something perhaps deeper even than life.

Does altruism ever stand a chance? Do wholly good deeds exist, or are they always tainted by some form of self-interest, some form of profit at somebody else’s expense? These are, arguably, religious as well as ethical questions, and it wasn’t too surprising that Stu had found a way forward through Buddhism, though this was only briefly mentioned. He at least has a ‘product’ to sell, albeit not for money (though one might expect his reputation thereafter to be worth millions). Rob, on the other hand has less to trade with.

Are we, morally, where we think we are?

* Choke runs until February 17. Visit to book.