Borderline – The Cockpit, London

Director: Sophie NL Besse
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Some of the most enduring images of 2016 are those of the Calais Jungle and depending on your political views on immigration will have evoked shock and sympathy or outrage. But underneath the sensationalist headlines are the real lives of thousands of refugees who have fled their home seeking shelter and safety in a foreign land, some of which PYSCHEdelight’s new show Borderline hopes to reveal.

tell-us-block_editedShowing at The Cockpit Theatre as part of Voila!2016, a festival of French-language theatre, Borderline unites established European actors with seven refugees from Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan and Palestine to present a ‘clown-based’ representation of life in the Jungle. A variety of short scenes reveals the refugee journey from war-torn nation, via cramped transportation, through the Jungle and occasionally on to temporary accommodation in the UK, as well as charting the history of the Jungle itself until demolition begins.

Using very little dialogue this is a unique and engaging piece of devised theatre that clearly evokes the experiences of many refugees using a variety of stylised and innovative theatre techniques.

Huddled together in a pack crouched tightly on the floor, the performers sway in unison from side to side, representing the boat that takes them to Europe before bottles of water are thrown to them – the allusion to transported cattle couldn’t be any clear.

The scenes in the Jungle are among the best, showing its happier side with moments of genuine camaraderie as residents sing together in their makeshift shelters – a beautifully simple scene involving clear plastic sheeting and colour lights – and comedy interpretations of daily life including a black market in which one hapless young man is sold a leather jacket and sunglasses supposedly making him look like Jude Law.

More comedy is applied to the onward journey as a few refugees stowaway on a train to Ashford where a sniffer dog, played hilariously by one of the cast, is tickled by his policeman owner before locating the hidden people. Having made it safely, one young man is then met by another officer who tells him he’s going to the “other UK” and taken to some detention facility where we never see him again.

Back in the Jungle and some of the scenes also look at the darker aspects of camp life, not just the petty crime but also random violence as a Sudanese man is beaten on arrival without explanation by four men in a circle, only later do we hear who they really were. While these scenes hint at the brutalities of the Jungle, the slightly episodic nature of the show and its preference for levity, does drain them of some of their horror so director Sophie N L Besse could give more thought to strengthening the impact of these sections to send the audience away with a sense of the danger refugees faced.

One startling clear image, however, is the huge pile of shoes at the back of the stage, and shoes become an integral part of the staging of Borderline; performers take them off, throw them around, even steal them at times, while the show ends with a large shoe fight. All of this makes a clear allusion to the images of shoes in the Holocaust and the stripping of humanity and death that they represented. A stark warning that our current attitude to immigration could lead us back to a particularly horrific period of history.

The 50-minute show ends with all pretence over and the cast come together to ask “What now?” – a question they leave entirely with the audience to go away and ponder. Not everything in this show works successfully and some of the meanings aren’t immediately obvious, yet performers Abd Alrehman Slama, Baraa Halabeih, Charly Martelli, Gareth Watkins, Enayat Khan, Lujza Richter, Mohamed Sarrar, Mohanad Hsab Alrsol Badr, Naqeeb Saide and Peter Pearson have shown that Europeans and refugees working together rather than against each other can create a fascinating and purposeful piece of theatre that’s full of humanity for its subjects.

Runs until 6 November | Image: PYSCHEdelight

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