Director: Sophie NL Besse
Reviewer: Christie-Luke Jones
Welcome to the UK is the sophomore effort of Borderline, a theatre ensemble comprising both refugee and European performers and creatives. Welcome to the UK follows on from the company’s eponymous 2016 debut, which satirised life within the Calais Jungle. This next instalment finds a group of refugees arriving on British soil, forced to endure a gauntlet of surreal funfair attractions controlled by a seemingly vindictive and power-hungry ringmaster. This accordion-wielding, Katie Hopkins-a-like caricature is hellbent on employing bureaucracy and sensationalist headlines to further delay the group’s successful integration into UK life.
What unfolds is a chaotic shotgun blast of what sometimes feel like half-scenes, which at best rekindle the anarchic rush of classic 1980s/1990s sitcoms like The Young Ones.
A key issue is that when the scenes playing for laughs are largely dialogue-driven, the loosely-scripted feel and overlapping threads of disjointed conversation often lead to the punchlines missing their mark altogether. This unpolished structure is arguably intrinsic to the charm of Borderline’s unique and inspiring approach to theatre, but when a play carries the burden of a message as important as this, it’s vital that measured direction gives said message a clear path with which to reach the audience.
Welcome to the UK’s frenzied approach does however lead to a number of show highlights. A scene in which a migrant is crashed around a veritable pinball machine of bureaucracy is highly effective in the simplicity of its message, and is presented with a striking aesthetic by the show’s creative team.
Likewise, whenever the pairing of a Wearside Shakespearean actor and a refugee with aspirations of becoming a thespian are on stage, the hilarity that ensues is a charming hybrid of The Two Ronnies and The Pink Panther. Their scenes also convey a genuine warmth between two budding friends from different sides of the globe, which serves as a welcome antidote to the at-times overly broad stereotypes presumably employed to highlight the worst of the ‘us and them’ mentality.
As the play progresses, hints of a more defined scene structure do allow some of the show’s poignant moments room to breathe. A phone call between a refugee and the wife he left back home is a definite highlight, delivering an emotional gut punch that lends a level of depth and relatability to the people onstage that is in lamentably short supply elsewhere in the show’s writing. It’s especially impressive on the part of the performers that despite the entire conversation taking place in Arabic, both the contextual and emotional clarity of the scene’s message is completely unhindered.
Welcome to the UK is above all else an ambitious piece of theatre, and this is perhaps both its key strength as well its key downfall. When its loud, all-guns-blazing moments are punctuated with more introspective scenes that allow for proper character development, the audience is treated to both genuinely clever satire and poignant insight. This effective balance is alas largely outweighed by a series of one-note right-wing stereotypes, under-developed ideas, and inconsistent direction. Far from a missed opportunity, but also far from a finished product.
Runs until: 16 February | Image: José Farinha