The Claim – Shoreditch Town Hall, London

Writer: Tim Cowbury

Director: Mark Maughan

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

When you are sitting in a room at the end of an unwelcoming corridor in a building with ties to officialdom, such as a town hall, it hardly comes as a surprise when someone wanders in looking lost. Tim Cowbury’s comedy begins with the appearance of Serge, an arrival from Democratic Republic of Congo, via Uganda and Streatham. It emerges that he has outstayed his tourist visa.

Serge (Ncuti Gatwa) asks us if we want to hear his story and, in what ensues, Cowbury asks us (representing the British public) to examine our attitudes and prejudices towards immigration. Two advocates represent us, playing roughly bad cop/good cop – an interrogator (Yusra Warsama) and a translator (Nick Blakeley). Over 75 minutes, we merely watch the processes without being fed enough information to make a judgement on the merits of Serge’s case to remain in the United Kingdom. We assume that Serge wants to stay in Streatham; “who would come here on holiday?” he protests, “so much rain”.

The translator says that he likes Serge, the interrogator indicates the opposite. Prejudice kicks in early. The pair are preoccupied over their personal lives, going on incessantly about holidays in Greece; they talk over each other and over Serge and no one listens properly to anyone else. Trivial discussions about elephants in Congo and Willy Wonka become more important than Serge’s fate and “claims” are taken to be shellfish as misunderstandings and mistranslations abound.

In balancing the serious and the comic, the play falls short, There develops a sense that Cowbury is trying too hard to be light-hearted and, in the process becoming heavy-handed, dwelling on and repeating things that should be obvious. The inconsequential chit-chat eventually becomes tiresome, wrapping itself around the life-changing issues at the heart of the play and effectively strangling them.

Directed by Mark Maughan, this all amounts to a mildly amusing diversion, but it needs to be so much more. We long for the play to emerge from its cloud of vagueness and get to the point, but, as the writer’s main point seems to be that no one ever gets to the point, this is not going to happen and we are left feeling just as frustrated as poor Serge.

Runs until 26 January 2017 | Image: Paul Samuel White


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