Shoreditch Town Hall, London – until 26 January 2018
Stopping off at Shoreditch Town Hall as it nears the end of a 2017-18 tour, The Claim explores the asylum decision system, finding its weaknesses and shining a light on them.
The creative team had help from related organisations and individuals who have gone through this process, as well as developing an installation (‘I Am Just My Words’) that can be found outside the auditorium and features five refugees recounting their own stories on film. They are also encouraging engagement, running various workshops and sessions in the local area.
Serge has entered a slightly intimidating room where he will have to make his case for asylum. He is soon met by a male employee, A, who attempts to make him comfortable by offering to take his coat and also speaking in Serge’s own language (French).
They aren’t quite in sync, however, as Serge’s attempts to tell his story are drowned out by A’s holiday plans and small talk while he awaits his colleague. B (a female employee) arrives and the difference in her attitude is immediately obvious. She dismisses A and tries to interview Serge in English, with little success and resulting in potentially devastating confusion.
The director, Mark Maughan, says in his notes: “We hope you found it good. By which we mean not just entertaining or moving, but also provocative.” I can wholeheartedly say that it lives up to this expectation.
There are funny bits, as well as moments of intense drama – but the overall feeling is one of frustration at the system and A & B’s complicity in it. Instead of trying to find out the truth by letting Serge make a statement as background, he is forced out of his comfort zone during which a catastrophic mix-up in translation occurs.
A & B’s unprofessional chatter adds more confusion as they forget who mentioned a slang term for ‘gun’ first – and when Serge works out they’ve misunderstood the whole thing he’s assumed to be changing his story! It’s truly horrifying to think of the terrible consequences for real people placed in this situation.
Tim Cowbury’s script is clever in its core thread about stories, how it unwittingly sows seeds that all come to fruition as the play goes on, and its air of authenticity. Given some of the news pieces about incompetent professionals that seem ever-present, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that two people could essentially invent a man’s entire back story through a language barrier and an unwillingness to listen.
Whilst it is great, in terms of audience comprehension, to have everyone speaking English, it is sometimes a little unclear as to which of the two languages is being spoken by the characters. Ncuti Gatwa does well to talk in broken English and show Serge’s confusion & attempts to understand when A & B aren’t talking his language; when Serge is in his mother tongue, Gatwa’s natural Scottish lilt comes through has Serge is able to talk freely & easily. The best sign of A talking French is when he occasionally gets a word slightly wrong – for example, to Serge’s great amusement he mixes up ‘incontinent’ and ‘intercontinental’. It’s a little thing, but as they are often speaking over one another it’s vital for us as the audience to be certain which language is passing between characters at any given moment.
Emma Bailey’s minimalist set is stark & imposing: a single chair up on a platform surrounded by bright, vertical strip lights. It becomes very oppressive indeed as Serge is interviewed with two of the lights turn in to shine directly onto him.
My verdict? An intelligently written play that points out uncomfortable truths about the asylum decision system – a vital & engaging watch.