Review – Unstated: Stories of Refuge, Southwark Playhouse

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Oh dear. How did we come to get so utterly out of our depth?

It seems that only yesterday the Whingers were paddling about on the comforting, crumbling shores of London’s famous West End Theatreland, waving happily at the occasional Dame of the British Empire through a proscenium arch and squealing with delight.

But on Monday night they found themselves sucked by the fierce undertow of the blogosphere into altogether choppier waters – the fringe. More fearsomely, into a storm of political fringe theatre: Unstated: Stories of Refuge at the Southwark Playhouse.

The security of their fourth-wall water-wings were torn violently from their scrawny arms even before it started…

Andrew joined Phil for a pre-show drink with a real cob on. “I don’t think I’m really in the mood for this,” he sighed, throwing what he imagined to be a look of engaging fatigue in Phil’s direction.

“Why?” snapped Phil, having none of it.

It transpired that when Andrew had tried to pick the tickets up from the theatre box office 30 minutes in advance (like the good theatrical citizen that he is) he had been ordered to go outside and wait behind a white line in an attempt to treat him (and the rest of the audience; he wasn’t being singled out; or so he claims) like asylum-seekers are apparently treated.

Now for all producers and artistic directors out there: the Whingers don’t ‘do’ participation except in the most extreme circumstances. If Carol Channing or Eartha Kitt begged them to get up on the stage and provide their backing vocals they might just be persuaded. Well, actually they would be up there like a shot even though neither can hold anything that could remotely be called a tune. But that’s not the point.

Anyway, determined not to allow Andrew to get out of it (it had been Andrew’s idea in the first place) Phil decided to cut his nose off to spite Andrew.

“Oh no we must do it – we must participate fully.”

And so it came to pass that Andrew and Phil turned up to be interrogated, searched (Phil insisted on this. Twice) and forced to sign forms before being admitted to the Southwark Playhouse to pick up the tickets.

Phil got into his role by pretending not to understand what the immigration officer was saying on the grounds that as one of the “men and women who seek refuge in the UK” (asylum seeker is now a disparaging term, apparently) he might very well not speak English.

Andrew was finding it much harder to get into character although eventually agreed to sign the form, albeit under the name of Lyn Gardner.

The hapless immigration officer was clearly growing tired of the Whingers and in the end waved them through, no doubt concerned that the curtain would never go up at this rate.

Well, we say “curtain”…

Anyway, once inside they were finger-printed (Andrew suddenly felt very at home), photographed and issued with identity cards. Phil decided to sign his “Nicholas de Jongh“. Which is probably as close as they’ll get to having an Evening Standard critic putting up with this palaver.

The next stage of the process involved the audience milling about in an airport waiting area and – although there was no WH Smith or Harrods – things did look up as it contained a bar which served two large glasses of wine for just £5.40 (take note, Apollo Theatre).

Yes, Southwark Playhouse might be treating you the full “men and women who seek refuge in the UK” experience but they’re still going to make money at the bar. Although presumably not much.

So anyway, as the decidedly worthy audience stood around sipping their drinks a woman was suddenly dragged screaming into their midst by officers before being dragged off to to be locked up. This was quite harrowing as Andrew’s wine nearly went flying in the fracas. Phil was merely relieved that the woman had been taken away and he could continue gossiping. “That’s quite enough of that” he remarked, taking another gulp of wine.

But the respite was brief. After a speech by a government minister on how this new terminal would help prevent unwanted immigration (which, contrary to the suggestions of the programme notes, was presumably not verbatim) the audience was shunted into a ‘removal centre’ with a large cage inside it.

Phil was chosen (with a few others) to be taken off into a separate room. Would he be interrogated? Abused? Have his wine taken from him?

No. Phil stood slurping his wine while looking at a bed-sit sized TV which was positioned on a plastic chair showing filmed testimonies of “men and women who seek refuge in the UK”.

The trouble was that as much as he pretended to be listening (the audience of NW somethings were looking terribly earnest so Phil attempted to look the part) he couldn’t hear a thing as the sound of the testimonies from the main room was drowning it out. Thank god Andrew wasn’t selected. Famous for ‘not doing’ TV, he would have been mortified.

Released back into the wild, Phil noticed Andrew sitting on a chair looking somewhat désolé. Indeed, the “men and women who seek refuge in the UK” seemed to be having a much better time than Andrew.

More filmed testimonies were screened interspersed by repetition of rather obvious phrases like, “My work permit was taken away” and “I became destitute” from actors writhing on the floor. One was holding a Ham and High newspaper, presumably to help the NW somethings feel more at home. Nothing like preaching to the liberals.

The testimonies of famous human rights activists such as Helena Kenedy QC were broadcast to show that it wasn’t just the “men and women seeking refuge in the UK” who thought they were being unfairly treated. It was British people too.

And the result of all this hectoring? Disturbing. Deeply disturbing. The Whingers could feel their hitherto unknown inner Richard Littlejohns bursting for a say. How frightening is that? Surely that wasn’t the intention?

This is assuredly the most difficult review the West End Whingers have ever had to type (not that they have to do anything, it’s true) not least because the writer of this piece is Fin Kennedy who has been to two West End Whingers parties (and very few people come to more than one, it has to be said).

Toby Young asked Where have all the right-wing playwrights gone? and the West End Whingers’ new best friend (although check with us about that again on Sunday) Jay Rayner asked where are the voices of the right?

We are sure that Fin Kennedy would be appalled to think that this production might well make him a candidate for the answer to those questions but what liberal could not be pushed to the right by this completely unbalanced denial of any issues other than individual suffering?

Full disclosure here: the Whingers do have some interest in the topic. Phil’s family is descended from Huguenots who (as Helena Kennedy pointed out) were immigrants to Britain. Andrew’s right to express an opinion is rather less clear although he was recently very inconvenienced when his Brazilian cleaner was deported for outstaying her visa.

But surely it cannot be true that the terrible ills and injustices of the world can be solved by moving everyone living under a repressive regime to a different country. Is it? Is it really that straightforward?

What a responsibility. The Whingers are pleased that they are not in charge because they do not have answers to these difficult questions (although they do know that their first action on getting into Number 10 would be to revoke the 24 hour drinking laws and replace them with 48 hour drinking laws) but the point is that these are difficult and complex issues which deserve to be examined from all angles.

Phew. So where does that leave the Whingers?

Well, chastened and upset.

And determined never – but never – to go to the theatre ever again until they can once again wave at a Dame of the British Empire through a proscenium arch in a crumbling West End theatre. And that’s a promise.

10 Responses to “Review – Unstated: Stories of Refuge, Southwark Playhouse”

  1. Andrew Field Says:

    Sounds like you lasted longer thn we did.

  2. J.A. Says:

    The Court, The Bush, The Barbican and finally Southwark. What’s going on?


  3. Be fair. We haven’t yet been to a puppet theatre.

  4. J.A. Says:

    It can be arranged!


  5. Sounds rather gruelling. I don’t do audience participation either, it’s kinda embarrassing. And I’m not very good at worthiness. As a French AD said of what sounds like a very similar Latvian show designed to let you experience what it was like for the victims of Fascism (presumably minus the bits where they gas you and pull out your gold teeth), it was too real to be true…

  6. Helen Smith Says:

    They needn’t have put this on at Southwark Playhouse if they wanted to humiliate the audience before the show – the Tricycle do this routinely to all holders of tickets for unreserved seats in their theatre. This is achieved (somewhat like Duckie’s Class Club at the Barbican but without the humour intended by that show) by having two different classes of tickets available – reserved and unreserved. Reserved seats are marked by special antimacassars which tend to fall off, so that unreserved ticket holders occupying them by mistake are turfed out of them when the legitimate ticket holders come along. Also, rather than let the audience into the auditorium 15 mins before the show to take their seats – with ushers on hand to tell everyone to budge up a bit if it’s a full house as they do at Soho Theatre, Young Vic, the whole of the Edinburgh Festival and anywhere else where the management are not insane – people are let in to the Tricycle 45 mins before so they can reserve whole rows of seats with coats, bags etc. They don’t just reserve the seats for friends and family, sometimes they reserve the seats for the bag or coat itself, tutting if asked to remove it so a ticket-holding bottom can take its place.

    As time ticks by and the auditorium fills up, it then becomes rather like one of those experimental theatre games played at the recent Hide and Seek Festival as those who are new to the Tricycle and have no allies to put coats on seats for them run up and down the aisles and from the ground floor to the upper level and back down again, begging to know whether that seat is taken – or that one, or that one, without any help from the ushers at all or any indication of which row is reserved, which unreserved, to the general distain of those Tricycle regulars who have had the foresight to turn up and grab seats for themselves and their luggage.

    I don’t recommend it.

    As for asylum seekers and refugees, they are sometimes treated horrifically by people in this country who see them as less than human; as ‘asylum seekers’, not as people. A friend who fled for her life to this country from Kinshasa told me a story this week about being held prisoner overnight in Bromley South station by staff there because she didn’t have the correct ticket for her journey from King’s Cross and didn’t have the money for the £20 fine they tried to impose. They spoke roughly to her and treated her like a criminal when she produced ID which labelled her as an asylum seeker and rather than realising this meant she was someone who had suffered in her own country and was probably vulnerable, they saw it as an opportunity to bully someone who was fearful of authority. It puts my travails at the Tricycle into perspective but mind you I’d still rather take my chances at Bromley South than ever go to the Tricycle again. But then, I’m not an asylum seeker.


  7. I went to see this with my friend ‘Barry’ who works with asylum seekers on a daily basis and we both agreed afterwards, that while it has its problems, anything that encourages us, to as Helen said, see beyond the label of asylum seeker, to move beyond disbelief as a default position and remember that these people are just people, with dreams and anxieties and everything else in between, is probably a good thing.

    We also both agreed that we would see a show with proper seats next time.

  8. Graham Says:

    Andrew – I have my own portable puppet theatre and will be happy to give you and Phil an experience you won’t forget.

  9. webcowgirl Says:

    I love puppet theater! What’s holding you guys back? In fact, I’m planning on doing my very own version of In Search of Lost Time with stick puppets this August, with the goal of keeping it down to 2 minutes for the entire seven volumes.

    One of my problems with these kinds of plays is that they are preaching to the converted. Another problem is that they are often tedious (see “preaching” above) and, on top of it all, simplistic. I wanted to take my hat off to you for going, but I really couldn’t be bothered. I’m aware of the issue, but anyone who thinks that this show will change anyone’s mind about how they feel about asylum seekers is only fooling themselves. People who don’t care won’t go; people who are aware of the issue aren’t going to learn anything new, although I think they might feel a bit self-congratulatory for putting up with something so dull when they could have been having fun.

  10. Bis Says:

    The first Thursday performance of this master work must stand out as one the great theatrical experiences of our time. For reasons best known to the producer/director, the cast did not have a rehearsal using the set ’till the afternoon of the performance. There did not appear to be any reason why they could not have done this on the Tuesday or the Wednesday. It was decided (I was informed) that the performance had to be called off 30 minutes before the doors were due to open as the cast had technical problems using the cage which constituted part of the set. I wasted 4 hours and £17 in train fares. Southwark Theatre staff were extremely apologetic, even though it could not have been their fault. As for people from (ex-) Red Room – they appear to have gone home, probably to count their Arts Council grant.


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