For the seasoned theatregoer, Welcome to the UK is a short and bittersweet play that might not have anything new to say that won’t have been said already in other new theatrical works that address the stories of people who seek asylum. The right of asylum in England stretches back to AD600 when the church provided refuge for those that would otherwise be persecuted. The UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and is thus obliged to offer protection to people who seek asylum so long as it can be proven that they genuinely fall under the parameters of what is considered a ‘refugee’.
But this isn’t a play about policy or regulations, though there is some detail about the processes, procedures and loopholes that people seeking asylum must go through. Attacks on Government figures are sparse (the audience is either treated or subjected to a rendering of ‘Dancing Queen’, as per the 2018 Conservative Party Conference), as this is really about the recounting of personal stories. There are few, if any, embellishments from the accounts of people seeking asylum, as there do not need to be.
The press night audience being classy and informed, some were still evidently shocked by precisely what is involved when it comes to making a successful application for asylum, as a lengthy post-show discussion facilitated by director Sophie NL Besse made clear. The repeated portrayal of the mainstream media as twisters and turners of events on the ground means that journalists are given a rougher ride in this production than parliamentarians are – perhaps because the cast and creatives seek to influence politicians to work to change the asylum seeking process, perhaps because the emphasis is on giving some not often heard people a platform, as opposed to the many opportunities for political leaders to state their case.
The stories are certainly quite hard-hitting, especially when a number of characters are sat around waiting as they have not been given permission to work whilst their applications for asylum are being processed: for all the words and dialogue, a moment of silence is the most poignant of all. In the sheer emotions elicited by the various narratives, it is easy to be swept up by the momentum of the show. In terms of set and props, it’s an innovative production. I’d give you an example or two, but it would be giving too much away. The script allows for some comic relief, such as when one man tries to teach a passage of Shakespeare to another, even more heavily-accented asylum applicant, or when characters find ways of having whatever fun they feel they can have in the face of adversity.
The production is not without imperfections, however honourable the cast and creatives’ reasons for bringing it to the London stage are. For one thing, there are simply too many stories going on, and all in one act. A lady from the Gambia with a story of human trafficking and modern slavery to tell could possibly have taken an hour on her own to give the audience all of the details. Instead, the play presents a number of cases relatively quickly – if the show were spread over two acts (or fewer characters introduced in the one act it currently has), greater depth could have been given to each of the storylines. Some of the humour is simply unfunny, even if it is never offensive. At least a scene about the sort of absurd questions asked in the ‘Life in the UK’ test for British citizenship was hilariously parodied.
The on-stage characters aren’t the only ones who go through an emotional rollercoaster. An exploration as to why it is that so many people still desire to settle in the UK despite the ‘hostile environment’ created, is for another show at another time. This play offers some intriguing perspectives and psychological responses to the stresses and rigours of being given leave to remain (so to speak). An engaging and impassioned production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Performed by a mixed ensemble, including those who have recently sought refuge in the UK, Welcome to the UK has its world premiere at The Bunker this January. Brought to life by Borderline, a unique theatre ensemble created by PSYCHEdelight, Welcome to the UK will be presented alongside the company’s first production Borderline.
With live music, horror and candy floss, Welcome to the UK tackles the migrant experience using satire to highlight the current hostile environment from the insane processes asylum seekers undergo when they arrive in this country, to how Brexit has affected the lives of European and British citizens alike. Directed by Sophie NL Besse, this powerful devised piece is full of visual poetry and physical comedy in a fantastical staging which borrows many different theatrical styles, from musical theatre to pantomime. They may have thought the journey was over once they left the Calais Jungle – they thought wrong.
Director Sophie NL Besse
Assistant director Gareth Watkins
Music and songs Tamara Astor
Movement director Peter Pearson
Set design Sayed Habib Sadat
Costume design Clare Copland
Producer Rebecca Hayes Laughton
Assistant Producer Baraa Halabieh
Photography José Farinha
Digital marketing and social media Roberto Landi
Abdul Aziz Al-Hasan – Sonia Mohamadi
Tamara Astor – Peter Pearson
Yasmeen Ghrawi – Delia Remy
Baraa Halabieh – Naqeeb Saide
Mohand Hasb Alrsol Badr – Abdulrahman Salama
Enayatullah Jalalzai – Nour-Ani Sisserian
Debby Kareem – Reuben Williams
Rob Landi – Wasig Zaid
Margaret Muyeva – Majid Zairei
PSYCHEdelight and The Bunker present
Welcome to the UK and Borderline
The Bunker, 53A Southwark Street London SE1 1RU
Tuesday 22nd January – Saturday 16th February 2019