Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review: 'The Claim' at Shoreditch Town Hall, 17th January 2018

The Claim reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The Home Office's treatment of asylum seekers is often cruel, ranging from Byron workers lured into a fake meeting that's actually an immigration sting, sexually abused at Yarl's Wood Detention Centre or simply given £35 a week to subsist on and spending their days living under the threat of imminent deportation.

It's a system fanned by the disgust of the right-wing press, who paint asylum seekers as lying scroungers out to take advantage of our kindness, and executed by cash-strapped government departments and private contractors that discourage empathy in their staff.

The thing is that there are asylum seekers who embellish or fabricate their stories knowing that they need proof of suffering/danger to their lives in order to remain. The Home Office and Immigration Tribunals' job is to decide who is genuine and who is not - and you can't get it right all the time.

Tim Cowbury's The Claim attempts to reveal precisely what goes into this process, promising to "chart the journey of a single asylum claim". This is a bit of an overreach, as what we actually get is a dramatisation of a Home Office interview, in which Serge (Ncuti Gatwa) attempts to explain his circumstances to B (Yusra Warsama) via an interpreter, A (Nick Blakely). 

What follows is a decent example of 'the banality of evil'. B's kindness circuits are pretty much burnt out, replaced by don't-give-a-fuck cynicism and A's cultural assumptions prevent him from translating Serge's story accurately. So, gradually, a story about a terrified child who loves Charlie and the Chocolate Factory morphs into a tale of homelessness, child soldiers, militias and murder.

Cards on the table - the subject matter of this play is extremely relevant to me. Without going into specifics I'm occasionally involved in the immigration appeal process, where people facing imminent deportation from the UK can apply to a judge for a stay on removal. This means that I receive Home Office documents summarising the facts of individual cases as decided in interviews like the one in this play. In addition, I've also participated in various immigration and asylum-related cases, including time spent behind the scenes at the Upper Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.

All this meant I deeply appreciated what The Claim is trying to do. It at least attempts to expose the way things can quickly go very wrong during the interview process, as well the difficulty of interpretation (in my experience it's a minor miracle that Serge even gets an interpreter). However, whilst its heart is in the right place it doesn't succeed in its aims.

For one, the minimalist staging and abstract writing detracts from the dowdy bureaucracy of the system. Part of the general atmosphere of the asylum process is a dizzying array of paperwork and clumsily put together document bundles, generally worked through in interview rooms and offices that have seen better days. 

In addition, while the writing is genuinely clever in the way it captures the frustration of speaking through an interpreter, the many narrative cul-de-sacs into A and B's personal lives end up distracting. I can see what Cowbury is going for - Serge is just another face on a conveyor belt of sob stories for the officials - but that's established early on and the point quickly becomes laboured. 

Similarly, there are a number of creaky translation gags that really should have been trimmed out in the second draft. For example, the interpreter 'hilariously' mistranslates 'intercontinental' as 'incontinence' feels like something from the Chuckle Brothers, not to mention that it doesn't even make sense as a mistranslation from French to English.

It's a shame, as the actual performances themselves are bang on. Ncuti Gatwa is absolutely gripping at Serge - taking us from optimism and friendliness all the way to paranoia and despair. He begins and ends the show shooting shiver-inducingly powerful accusatory stares at the audience, an indelible dramatic image. While Gatwa is the centrepiece, Warsama and Blakeley are also great as the half-distracted functionaries deciding this mans' fate - I just wish they had better dialogue to deliver.

It adds up to a play that captures elements of the immigration and asylum procedures, but misses the bigger picture. I suspect jettisoning the more overt theatricality and writing flourishes in favour of a more naturalistic approach would be far more effective in truly communicating what it feels like to be tangled up in this bureaucracy (at least how I've experienced it for the past decade or so). But I suppose that's to be left to another production now.

The Claim is at Shoreditch Town Hall until 26 January. Tickets here.

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