Saturday, 20 January 2018

Lost in translation… The Claim, Shoreditch Town Hall

Ncuti Gatwa wanders front of stage and looks out to the audience gazing smilingly into our eyes with the room still lit: he has a performance to give and we’re not sure if he’s talking with us or to us… It’s not the first nor last time that Tim Cowbury’s play will toy with meaning, misunderstanding and the lines between story, telling and interpreting.

The Claim deals with a single asylum case and if it’s extended miss-communications feel occasionally contrived it’s worth pointing out that the play is based on two years research with time spent at immigration courts, as well as working closely with asylum seekers, refugees and representatives from migrant organisations.  

So, yes indeed, what we see could actually happen. In another context, it could be you and it could be me.

Gatwa is a charismatic central focus playing the eloquent and intelligent Serge, also known as Sese who is from the CDR region of Congo but is living in Streatham via Uganda. He has a story to tell but he speaks French and only a little English. He has been called for interview by the Home Office and faces a sympathetic but distracted male (Nick Blakeley) who speaks French quite well but not fluently. At first we’re not aware of the language, just that Serge and the man are talking at odds with the latter making the occasional mistake: “incontinent” travellers rather than “inter-continental” and elephant trumpets rather than trumps… it’s only as things progress that you see the damage done by these innocent imperfections.

Ncuti Gatwa  (photograph courtesy of Paul Samuel White)
Serge talks of Willy Wonka and the man jumps to Willy Fog and the animated adventures of Around the World in 80 Days… another example of two cultural references not meeting. If only the man was less self-absorbed and distractedly fantasising about his “partner”/co-worker and his planned holiday to the Greek island of Ios.

The woman (Yusra Warsama) duly arrives and now we realise that, when talking to her, Serge has an African accent and that he knows very little English; cleverly done but still we expect that these three, reasonable people will, between them, work things out properly.

But it’s not so simple. In the second segment of the play, the woman gets the impression that Serge has been involved with the Congolese militia, the M23, and it is painful to see the two failing to connect with the actuality. But… this is as nothing to the final third when French to Franglais to English equals double-dutch… as Serge’s last chance is frittered away by the man who can’t listen or understand what he’s really trying to say. He means well but… his French isn’t up to it, his attention span isn’t robust and his pursuit of his co-worker as a partner means he almost doesn’t want to let her miss-conceptions down.

It is excruciating… you want to slap him… but compared to the actuality?

Yusra Warsama, Nick Blakeley and Ncuti Gatwa (photograph Paul Samuel White)
The Home Office mantra of “coherence, consistency and credibility…” is fatally undermined by incoherence, inconsistency and incredulity. This may not happen in many cases but it surely does in others. And that, my friends, makes us *all* complicit. Gatwa’s disappointed disgust at the close says it all; he’s been let down just like too many before him.

Mark Maughan directs boldly and with the resolute purpose of challenging the audience of wrong-footing us and making us think about why the play is at times annoying, frustrating and ultimately bitterly poignant. Tim Cowbury’s constructions are clever but also credible, he is aware of the dangers of discussing story in a story and weaves his way through with logic and precision.

The three players all do well, especially Gatwa who effectively has three roles to play: Sese himself, Serge the friendly French speaker and Sese/Serge whose English ties him up in knots.  Yusra Warsama is so smoothly proficient as the professional interrogator, worn down by process and anxious to get the right result but quickly, whilst Nick Blakeley, who’s wistful, distracted and infuriating co-interviewer inadvertently does so much damage, still manages to convey compassion and a likeability (whether he escaped from the Town Hall without being slapped I can’t say…)

All three interact so well with the complexities of the script and the staging which left the lights on the audience throughout. A job well done.

Yusra Warsama  (photograph Paul Samuel White)
The PR says that The Claim is “the only contemporary work to both satirise and humanise everyone around the Home Office interview table…” and you can well believe it but there are also a number of what are termed “wraparound” activities with organisations such as UNESCO. These include: a specially commissioned series of testimonies written by refugees in collaboration with Freedom From Torture, one-off legal surgeries for those soon to face the Home Office interview, post-show discussions, Q&As and more.

The Claim isn’t just telling a story, it’s taking action too and we should take note for injustice is all too easy to imagine as a foreign problem… 

The Claim continues until 26th January at Shoreditch Town Hall, London – tickets available from the box office. It then plays to single dates on 29th January at Gulbenkian, Kent and 31st January at the Platform Theatre, Glasgow.      

IthankyouTheatre Rating: **** Just imagine the roles reversed…

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