In a recent blog, a critic mentioned that British theatre had dropped the ball on Brexit. It was a very true (and sad) point, but there seemed to be hope on the horizon – the blog was posted a week before new “musical” / slick gig theatre show Leave to Remain opened at Lyric Hammersmith, and over at Southwark’s subterranean Fringe venue The Bunker, Borderline Theatre premiered the satire Welcome to the UK. Both seemed to be geared towards taking on our current national crisis.
The word Brexit doesn’t appear in Leave to Remain, and though the show is a lot of things, it never really scrutinises the 2016 result. So that’s out of the running.
Brexit does play something of a role in Borderline’s show, albeit taking a back seat. Which may be for the best – in a show that certainly has more teeth than its Hammersmith counterpart – because Welcome to the UK shows there’s much more at stake than participation in the EU, for those fighting for sanctuary in a world increasingly descending into meaninglessness.
A music revue turned Spitting Image with a few vaudevillian twangs, the play features a cast that includes refugee performers, and forms a sequel to the company’s debut piece, which ran in 2017.
The experiences of refugees have been brought to life in both garish and authentic detail in shows like Buggy Baby or The Jungle, and Welcome to the UK goes instead for a more abstract, satirical approach, all top-hats and tails. At the start of the show the audience, dwelling on three sides of a thrust stage, is asked to inflate red white and blue balloons (“fill them with your dreams”) and afterwards throw them into the performance space – the show then continues as those seeking asylum have to do so while wading through our dreams – Union Jack idealism, always in the room.
It’s little touches like that, peppered through the 90-minute piece, that show a real on-the-nose craft and poise. Two bits stand out – one involves a Mary Poppins impersonator mollycoddling a man in need of asylum, speaking (and singing) on his behalf – his desperation facilitating her vanity project. Ouch. The second is where a queue of immigrants wait to find out if they’ve been granted entry, their cases literally numbers in a game of roller bingo. You luck out, you get in. The moments are sporadic, but the satire is there.
It only really works because of the canopy of Sayed Habib Sadat’s set, which allows everyone to feel privy to this communal experience – fairy lights overhanging the stage and audience areas. The piece plays on a sense of a disjoint – we’re enveloped in these horrifying realities, passed off as country larks. Fairy-lit follies with lives at stake, held in a sickly embrace. Painted candyfloss stores house unwilling shopkeepers. It all feels tacky in a meaningfully tactless way.
It’s hard, though, to shake the feeling that the show could have gone much further, that for all its political power, there’s never a coup-de-grace. In the end, it’s left to the quieter moments to mean the most, especially as Abdulrahman Salama, sat atop a ladder in abstract isolation, quietly discovers the loss of a family back home.
Not perfect as a piece of theatre, but absolutely vital as a staging.