Benedict Nightingale
Published: 08 September 2009

You walk into a shabby building behind the Oxo Tower, into a room packed with tourist-board ads promoting New Orleans, past TV monitors warning of Hurricane Katrina, up into a replica of a French quarter nighterie complete with jazz-singer and a barman who is shrugging off danger, when there’s a roar and the lights go out. And so to a hall packed with damaged bric-à-brac — and as riveting an example of site-specific theatre as I’ve seen.

Riveting and appalling. Were people, especially Afro-Americans too poor to escape the devastated and drowned city by car, really treated with such neglect and contempt by the authorities? If we’re to believe the evidence of the six people in Jonathan Holmes’s almost entirely verbatim play — and, yes, I do — the aftermath of Katrina in August 2005 was a vast crime that should have landed policemen in jail and, had it occurred here, might have brought down the Government. It says something for Holmes’s restraint, incidentally, that the former President is mentioned only once, by white tourists who have escaped horrors galore to find fresh chaos at the airport because “George Bush landed for a photo op”.

Yet at the centre is a strange and moving story. Andrea Harris’s dogged, driven Beatrice, whose cancer-ridden man Virgil dies thanks to the hurricane’s impact on oxygen supplies, decides that he won’t be left to flood, rats and alligators. So she places his body on an old door and, first wading, then swimming, ensures he makes it to the morgue at City Hall five miles away. Soon she gets the feeling that Virgil, who “wasn’t no saint”, is guiding her and, when she looks like getting trapped and killed by rising water, saving her — and somehow you believe it.

The disaster created sinners, such as the gun-happy cops, but also saints, such as Andrew Dennis’s Cal, a self-confessed “lowlife” who finds a joy in rescuing 40 people. Add Joe Speare as one of the many prisoners who barely escaped drowning after their guards deserted, and you leave the ad-hoc theatre stirred, troubled, but ready for the coda, which is a funeral service that becomes a song of defiance and resilience. No thanks to the powers-that-be, but New Orleans will survive.