I recently read something about ‘verbatim theatre’, in which the assertion is made that it can work both ways. While providing voices, so to speak, to people who wouldn’t ordinarily have their stories depicted on stage, the very nature of it means that, by definition, it is restricted to whatever words the playwright’s interviewees supply, and therefore deprives (if that’s the right word) the playwright of using their creative juices to come up with a more impactful way of saying more or less the same thing.
In plays like The Special Relationship, the authenticity of the words outweighs the limitations, particularly when the characters have such hard-hitting stories to tell.
The story is of various people who have been deported from – wait for it – the United States to the United Kingdom. This almost screams ‘first world problems’ at first glance, and indeed things work out in the end for these people, who live to tell their stories: even if some of them do suffer bereavement along the way. Nikol (Yvette Boakye) was unable to attend her mother’s funeral – having applied for a compassionate visa, she was told this would take forty-five working days to process.
Stories of this nature, as well as ones about the (mis)treatment of deportees by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), are broken up by musical interludes, complete with choreography, as well as political interjections from the likes of President Trump (Duncan Wisbey, who portrays both the voice and facial expressions with pinpoint accuracy), Theresa May (Miranda Foster) and Boris Johnson (Fergal McElherron). Trump’s rendering of the Taylor Swift song ‘Shake It Off’ is a hoot, as is a brief duet with Johnson, a truncated version of ‘Send In The Clowns’ from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Taken together, then, the audience experiences as much hilarity as it does seriousness. Oh, and there’s a slight diversion from the verbatim, in the form of Curtis (Nicholas Beveney), an ICE officer, who, as an on-stage sign warns prior to the show starting, “we couldn’t resist spicing up a little bit”.
As ever, one sits on the front row at one’s own risk, and a moment’s banter with an audience member I found to be rather amusing (even if I was effectively indulging in a bit of schadenfreude). Because of the reliance on storytelling in this production, it is almost entirely exposition rather than dramatization. That said, it would be unfair to say this would work just as well as a radio play, as the movements of the cast, as well as good use of staging, have much to contribute to proceedings. The play is balanced enough to point out that US immigration policy as it stands has its roots in the Clinton Administration, as opposed to something that only occurred under President Trump – ICE, so this play tells us, deported many people during the Obama Administration too. The use of a stage revolve goes well with the characters’ sentiments that they are (figuratively speaking) going around in circles.
Curtis takes the line that he is only carrying out orders – the ‘Nuremberg Defense’. But it’s the details in the stories of the deportees that make the show an engrossing one. I wasn’t aware, for instance, quite how many people the US deports for traffic offences. Clodine (Moyo Akandé) has really drawn the short straw, having reached but not actually exceeded the legal drink-drive limit, she is put into custody anyway. At a macro level, the audience merely has it confirmed what it already knew – the United States still has a significant amount of power and influence, and it is not afraid to wield it. But the devil is in the detail, and character development is achieved here by more than sufficient background and context supplied.
I’m not entirely sure an interval was necessary – if anything, it slows the momentum. Nonetheless, this is an enlightening and entertaining production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A grain of cocaine, a digit on a breathalyser, a forged cheque, a DEA sting or murder one?
Caught in the transatlantic tango between Trump and May and proudly presented by a gun-toting Immigration officer, these are verbatim stories of double punishment and separation.
Gripping accounts of justice and separation brought to vivid dramatic life in a fast-paced and theatrically daring production using savage comedy, surreal metaphor and verbatim testimony from those who ended up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.
Developed from interviews with ex-prisoners and experts in immigration and criminal law, the award-winning playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak carves a rich dramatic narrative and uncovers vital questions around identity and place as he gets behind the political rhetoric of those caught up in the quagmire of immigration detention and deportation.
The full cast is Amrita Acharia (Good Karma Hospital/Because the Night/Game of Thrones) as Anne, Moyo Akandé (Vera/Still Game) as Clodine, Nicholas Beveney (Noughts and Crosses/ Black Earth Rising (BBC), Yvette Boakye (Love The Sinner/Top Trumps) as Nikol, Miranda Foster (The Man/Dance Nation) as Kathy and Theresa May, Fergal McElherron (The Ferryman/Guy Richie’s King Arthur) as Patrick and Boris Johnson and Duncan Wiseby (Dead Ringers/London Road) as John and Donald Trump.
21 Dean Street
London W1D 3NE