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4 starsReviewed by Alice de Cent at Theatre503

After three years studying and living alongside the Okoku, disgraced anthropologist Roy Turner is convinced he has discovered the world’s oldest music. But with their valley in danger of being sold and developed, Roy faces the challenge of convincing UNESCO that the Okoku’s “intangible cultural heritage” must be protected. Enter Dominique, Roy’s partner and UNESCO representative, who must determine if the Okoku’s practices are compatible with international human rights statutes.

James Sheldon’s intelligent and absorbing play bravely tackles the issues of cultural imperialism and universal rights, and does a fine job of placing them in a human context, although the abrupt change of pace in the concluding scenes leaves the piece in danger of feeling hastily concluded.

Roy’s Okoku student Tatalau’e is excellently portrayed by Benjamin Cawley. Caught between ambitions to study at Stanford, and a deep connection to his people’s traditions, the arrival of vivacious archaeologist Terri forces him into a terrible dilemma. Cawley’s disarming performance guides the audience through the different issues that Roy and Dominique discuss, keeping a strong connection to the human story throughout.

The main action is interspersed with Tatalau’e’s nephew Tembe’s narration of the Okoku creation myth, beautifully delivered by Fisayo Akinade. The slightly curious decision to have Tembe watch the rest of the action from a barely-visible corner of the stage was a little distracting, but elsewhere Tom Littler’s direction is well-judged, capably steering the play through the script’s sometimes over-extended emotional extremes.

Shiverman is a challenging play, both for an audience and creative team. A talented cast here uses a small and intimate setting to create some truly expansive action. Admirably tackling complex issues without resorting to abstraction, Shiverman makes for two engrossing and compelling hours of theatre.

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