A moment of awkwardness begins proceedings in The Claim, which never entirely dissipates: Serge (Ncuti Gatwa) doesn’t know what is going on, and not just because there’s a language barrier. Billed as ‘the journey of a single asylum claim’, it is, in fact, only one stage in the journey, and because of so many misunderstandings between Serge and the unimaginatively named A (Nick Blakeley) and B (Yusra Warsama), it’s frankly not much of a journey.
The sluggish pace of proceedings may well be indicative of the stark inefficiency of the asylum application process, but it unfortunately makes for the sort of theatre that is difficult to engage with. A is particularly anxious to get B to go on holiday with him, and some long and detailed descriptions of what both immigration officers have encountered overseas prove completely superfluous in the end, by their own admission: their stories, largely unmemorable in any case, were apparently embellished to some extent.
There are a lot of contradictions in the narrative. B strictly enforces a ‘no mobile phones’ regulation in one scene but allows a phone to be used in another, and disallows the use of an interpreter to assist any further in Serge’s case, only to go on to interrupt Serge for speaking in broken English after she’s decided that actually, he can have an interpreter after all. A, meanwhile, tries to be Serge’s ‘friend’, whatever that means, and implies to B that Serge has a strong case for asylum, but later, completely turns against him, mistranslating (despite being fluent in Serge’s native French) the applicant’s words in a way that doesn’t so much extract a false confession out of him so much as twist and turn his story beyond recognition.
The actors do their best (and then some) with what they’re given, but the punchlines – and there are many of them – are, for the most part, unfunny. They were not offensive, but neither did they achieve much beyond continuing to demonstrate a variety of possible misconceptions of British English idioms and words that sound similar. Marks for consistency, I suppose, as the gags kept coming, but they had outstayed their welcome by the time ‘intercontinental’ had been confused with ‘incontinence’.
The show’s programme mentions those who are working diligently to change the current system: it would have been nice to have heard some examples of what is happening in the play itself, rather than relegating them to a few headphones in the foyer in a separate ‘installation’. As it stands, however, the play would have worked far better as a monologue. Serge, just Serge, steadily telling his version of events in his life from the incident years ago that made him initially fear for his life, to how he ended up in the UK. To grant immigration officers more lines in the script than the asylum applicant seems a missed opportunity to give refugees the voice that the production presumably sought to provide.
“I never finished my story. I think it would have been incredible,” muses Serge in the closing moments of the play. I can only agree – and that’s without having heard it. It would certainly have been better than hearing about what an immigration officer wants to do with his annual leave.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A comically absurd and quietly shattering journey to the heart of our tolerant and fair society.
Serge stands before us. He has a performance to give.
But why is he here? What is he claiming has happened to him? And what has Willy Wonka got to do with it?
The Claim gently invites you into the most British of interviews, then morphs into a dizzying onslaught of bureaucracy and prejudice. A bold, imaginative response to the stories of those seeking refuge in the UK, this play asks what happens when your life is at stake and all you have to save it are your words.
Written by Tim Cowbury
Directed by Mark Maughan
Tuesday 16 – Friday 26 January