Soho Theatre, London – until 21 March 2020
It’s amazing how entertaining deportation can be. We laughed our way through the stories of crime and punishment collated in the glorious confection that is Hassan Abdulrazzak’s The Special Relationship. There’s Anne whose husband built a meth lab to bring her diabetes under control. She lost a hundred pounds in seven months. Then he got sloppy. Started buying the ingredients in Walmart… Then there’s John – crazily in love when he learns his girl’s a cheater. He decides to shoot himself in front of her; but shoots her instead.
What sets this warm, vulnerable, occasionally unhinged, bunch of very human wrongdoers apart is they’re all Brits in America. Nikol was six when her parents emigrated. Kathy was 12. The US is all they know. Now, despite having served their time, they’re being returned to a country and a culture of which they have little or no memory. They leave behind parents, partners, children, and even grandchildren. Punishment upon punishment.
The Special Relationship celebrates humanity and the flaws in any system that seeks to label, define, and grade us all
The humour that runs through The Special Relationship is fuelled by its colourful and quirky characters. All are based on real-life interviews and research. Driving the action is our fictional MC, Curtis, a joyful, high-energy, dancing, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officer. Shimmying across the stage like the older Marvin Gaye, he is the uniformed equivalent of a cream cake – naughty but nice. He’s just following orders.
The title and the dancefloor skirmishes featuring Donald Trump, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, create a link between the stories we’re hearing and The Special Relationship between the UK and the US, but the allusions never build into a coherent whole. Are we saying that deportation of felons is fine when applied to Mexican or Indians, but that Brits should be exempt; or that any deportation in these circumstances is a harsh and inhumane secondary punishment?
Under Esther Baker’s elegant direction, it is enough that The Special Relationship celebrates humanity and the flaws in any system that seeks to label, define, and grade us all. Katy McPhee’s minimal set morphs quickly from prisons to pens to plane. Lucie Pankhurst’s playful choreography is unexpected and uplifting. The versatile cast – Amrita Acharia, Moyo Akande, Nicholas Beveney, Yvette Boakye, Miranda Foster, Fergal McElherron and Duncan Wisbey – is uniformly excellent. You will leave thoughtful and smiling.