The Special Relationship – Soho Theatre

Reviewer: David Guest

 Writer: Hassan Abdulrazzak

Director: Esther Baker

Ever since Churchill spoke of a special relationship between the UK and the USA in the wake of the Second World War Presidents, Prime Ministers and other politicians have conveniently made much or little of the links between the two nations.

While co-operation between the USA and the UK has historical roots it has featured more in the news in recent years thanks to the friendship and shared commitment between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and the relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton then George W. Bush. Today people will be more aware of the frosty and dysfunctional associations between Theresa May and Donald Trump (who famously described the situation as “the highest level of special”) and the fact that Trump apparently regards Boris Johnson highly.

In the midst of these political shenanigans it is shocking to discover just how many British people have been deported following crimes which have seen them serve time in prison, no matter how serious or otherwise and regardless of how long they have lived in the States.

The true stories of some of these deportees are told in an unexpectedly entertaining, though forcefully instructive, new play The Special Relationship at Soho Theatre. In it Hassan Abdulrazzak seamlessly and compellingly weaves together verbatim accounts from interviews he conducted with ex-prisoners, and immigration and criminal law experts.

We are informed in a projected caption as we enter the auditorium that everything we are about to see is word for word from deportees, politicians and an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officer, “who we couldn’t resist spicing up a little bit.” It is this authenticity that drives the play not, perhaps, revealing so much about the “special relationship” as about the lives of individuals affected by an inhuman and ill-considered policy.

The ensemble works extremely well together to present these stories faithfully and fairly. There is no suggestion that any of them are insignificant crimes, whether that be John’s life sentence for shooting a girlfriend or lesbian Kathy’s unlikely involvement with Mexican drug smugglers. One surprising fact is that many deportations stem from traffic violations. Yet the way the stories are related gives a deeper understanding of motivation and a gravity to every narrative.

Every hard-working performer is outstanding as they capture the heart of the people caught up in the farce: Amrita Acharia (Anne), Moyo Akandé (Clodine), Yvette Boakye (Nikol), Miranda Foster (Kathy), Fergal McElherron (Pat) and Duncan Wisbey (John). None is ever less than utterly believable.

The only created character is ICE officer Curtis (a smooth Nicholas Beveney), painting a picture of the absurdity of law and order in this context. He claims to “represent the righteous” but is largely used to caricature the bigger ideas.

Into this are thrown satirical asides featuring Trump (a chillingly accurate impersonation by Wisbey) and Theresa May (Foster, at every appearance amusingly recreating the one thing that the ex-PM is remembered for  – the awkward moves to Abba’s Dancing Queen at the 2018 Party Conference) – with the pair flirtatiously dancing a tango as the President reflects on the “special relationship.” Tony Blair (Wisbey again) and Boris Johnson (an oafish cycle helmet-wearing McElherron) also have parts to play in the unfolding drama. Of course they are all portrayed as ridiculous, but a mantra of this piece is that their views on the deportation of criminals and their behaviour generally are pretty unbelievable anyway.

Commissioned by Synergy Theatre, which works with prisoners, ex-prisoners and young people at risk of offending through theatre and similar activities, The Special Relationship always feels truthful, even when scenes are highlighted by lip-sync and dances to such songs as Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, Patti Smith’s Free Money and Edwin Starr’s War, and even as we smile we are outraged.

Esther Baker, the artistic director of Synergy, directs with what can only be described as barely suppressed rage at the treatment of people caught up in a spiral of immigration detention and deportation. When the action becomes ludicrous it is only because it reflects the realities faced by the deportees.

Played out on an atmospheric plain turntable set with swivel chairs and wire fencing (Katy McPhee) with tight and well-used lighting (Tony Simpson) and sound (Sarah Weltman) there are just occasionally thoughts that this might work better as a shorter piece more at home at the VAULT Festival, for example. But that is not to deny its importance and effectiveness.

Thankfully for many of the individuals, however unsettling the experience, something good has come from the deportation. It’s great to discover that Nikol is a successful stand-up comic, of Pat’s courage in beating the immigration ban and assuring a reunion with his daughter and of John’s nest egg for retirement. It’s especially heart-warming to hear of the role of charity Prisoners Abroad in providing help for those deported once back in Britain.

The Special Relationship never claims to deal with all the questions, or to provide lots of answers.  But it successfully addresses important issues of crime and punishment , bravely recounting real stories of real people in a political climate that denies them those rights.

Runs until 21 March  2020

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Scathing political satire

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