On Arriving – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Ivan Faute

Director: Cat Robey

The most evocative section in Ivan Faute’s On Arriving, showing at the Jermyn Street Theatre as part of the Footprints Festival, is the image of well turned-out aid workers in their sturdy shoes asking patronising and intrusive questions. Like disaster tourists, these ‘self-designated rescuers’ want to know how much our protagonist has suffered and what she has left behind, while never truly understanding the consequences of her journey.

Neighbours are leaving, worried about protests in the area, but one family decide to stay, a momentary trouble that will pass over. But when war suddenly arrives on their doorstep in a cloud of smoke, a young woman begins a dangerous journey to who knows where with her young baby, brother and older relatives in tow, but terrible things lie ahead.

Faute’s 60-minute play is deliberately fragmented, cutting out of sequence between happier times at home, an almost carefree existence, and key events on the risky journey to what the family hope will be somewhere safer. These snatches of scenes require the audience to work hard to piece the timeline together to understand the confusion, powerlessness and limited options for refugees with little knowledge of the terrains they must cross.

On Arriving is subtle in its presentation of these events, weaving hints of mud and deserts, long queues, trucks and thin boats into the story without overtly drawing attention to them. Faute takes the same approach to the fate of the young woman’s family, talking around death and grief in a way that is often very powerful, all the more so for avoiding direct confirmation of these losses.

Yet, this one-person play can be almost immersive in its detail, describing a hazardous scene on a capsizing boat in horrifying detail relived by the central character who recreates the chaos and panic that only amplifies the problem. Performer Sophia Eleni creates these lives in vivid detail, peopling the story with a variety of characters both at home and in transit to capture these contrasting experiences.

And it is those sudden changes of tone that are the play’s strength and weakness. Eleni is quite extraordinary in her ability to shift the mood with just a beat between scenes, one moment devastated and broken, afraid and desperate, the next gleeful and light as the audience is transported back to the hopeful pre-war era. There is considerable pathos in her characterisation which builds its extremes of experience as the story concludes – and notable too that Eleni has composed the music and sound design.

This back-and-forth approach does have its disadvantages however, and while the play sets out to restore individuality to the refugees in the story, we find out very little about this woman and family other than her maternal status. She talks about a childhood love of maps early on, linked to the value of her smartphone as a directional tool but this notion is disregarded during her journey and could be used to tell the audience more about her character, determination or fortitude rather than just her experiences.

It all starts with a single question ‘how do people decide which roads to take’ and like Flight, On Arriving is really strong on linking the settled lives families once had with the terrifying voyage to safety they must undertake filled with dangerous hurdles as the stakes get higher. Like Faute’s aid workers, its tempting to focus solely on what has been lost but knowing a little more about who this family were to begin with would add to their humanity.

Runs until 22 July 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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