Nothing To Declare – South StreetBy A F Harrold
April 10, 2010
This evening’s show, performed by the Reading Youth Theatre, is one of a handful of performances before it heads up to Edinburgh for the Fringe in August, and from the looks of it they’re already pretty well prepared for the big run.
The play is designed to upset the Daily Mail by focussing sympathetically on the plights of four young people who come to Britain seeking asylum. It explores, not only the labyrinthine processes of the bureaucracy at this end, but also the desperate situations that have sent them here – fleeing genocide or civil war or the threat of becoming forced child soldiers and so on. It’s fairly clear that no one travels all this way, in the conditions and the costs these characters have for no reason what so ever.
The four immigrant characters are housed together in a B&B awaiting their days in court, but different fates await each of them. England isn’t quite the safe haven they dreamt of, and not just because Border Patrol and Social Services are justly inquisitive and paranoid (that’s their jobs, at least), but because of the ‘family members’ and ‘boyfriends’ they’ve sometimes been sent to England to meet, who are despicable in their exploitation of the vulnerable. Children are forced into the drug trade or into the white slave trade, prostitution, in order to ‘pay back’ the people who should be looking after them.
Having done research with the Reading Refugee Group and having spoken to those who’ve been through the process about their own stories the Reading Youth Theatre have been able to cut to the heart of the matter and uncover some of the dreadful truth of this complicated business (and it is, of course, very much a business – the traffickers, for example, make big money).
It’s hard for a play like this, dealing with issues as grave and dangerous as these, to not feel heavy handed or preachy at times, but mostly it treads carefully and lets the scenes and the characters tell the story, rather than by pointing fingers.
Where it does feel a little more judgmental is in the counterpoint story of three posh girls from Berkshire backpacking round Africa and e-mailing mummy and daddy at home for more money. Their interactions in the souks of North Africa and with their guides on safari are funny, and their generally pretty but dim demeanours are entrancing, but it seems a cheap dig to hold them and point at them, saying look how easy life is for some kids when it’s being particularly rough for these others, not because it’s untrue, but because the play seems to be in judgment on these girls for something that isn’t their fault.
Having seen some of the cast in previous RYT productions it’s a pleasure to see how good they’re getting. The acting holds up well, and the choreography is tremendously impressive at times. There are a number of scenes in which the bulk of the 15-strong company are on stage at once and they give the sense of a shoal of fish, moving as one without ever bumping into their neighbours, with a great idea of shape and distance and timing. It’s really quite impressive, and effective too, especially in the human trafficking scenes with everyone crammed in the back on an imaginary truck or boat.
This major piece is partnered with a less successful work devised by another company of RYT players. The shape of the play, which zig-zags haphazardly through the life of a married couple, from 1940 to 2010, like a dream or stream of consciousness is very well done, and again the acting often holds up nicely (with every member of the cast playing the man or the woman at different stages of the story), and even the story which concerns the husband’s secret (which I can’t reveal) is interesting, but the script lets it down. Although occasionally funny, the gross stereotyping of (imagined) gender roles and attitudes in the past and semi-improvised feel on the dialogue makes the piece feel unreal or untrue and slightly uninteresting. There is no replacement for a good script.
However, the concept is strong and a couple of dance sequences are very enjoyable (even though the version of I Get A Kick Out Of You at the 1951 dance is quite anachronistically more modern than that (Jamie Cullum’s version?). It’s not without promise, but better than the play are the players, who if given the chance to take on a script, perhaps written by a playwright (there’s a reason professionals exist), would be worth keeping an eye on.
All-in-all this double bill proves that RYT is a hotbed of talent and in years to come we’ll all be saying ‘I saw him or her before they were famous,’ about one or two of these actors.