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A stern woman blocks the entrance to the Southwark Playhouse. She eyes the queuing audience members with suspicion and only waves people in to the building once they have been frisked at the door. Once inside, security passes are required and release forms need to be signed, before the gruff white-shirted staff usher everyone through into a holding area.
For the purposes of Topher Campbells new production, the Southwark Playhouse, a chilly brick-walled vault beneath London Bridge Station, has been turned into a removal centre for asylum seekers. The audience are shunted from room to room in attempt to convey what it must be like to lose control of ones life, to get caught up in a system where cost is the bottom line and disbelief is the default setting.
In one part of the venue a large metal cage has been erected, in which an unpleasant interrogation scene is staged between two detention officers and a woman who has come to the UK from Togo. On two large screens on either side of the cage, this womans actual video testimony is projected. Further video clips are shown, filmed interviews with political campaigners including Helena Kennedy QC, eloquently discussing the failings of the asylum system in this country.
The productions intention, to give voice to the voiceless, is commendable, and Fin Kennedys script attempts to tap into all areas of the debate, including media culpability, profit-hungry politicians and even the Metro-reading middle classes cocooned in their living rooms, passing sweeping, ill-informed judgements. He tries, in fact, to do too much, and the production ends up gets pulled in too many directions, undermining its potential impact.
There are some powerful moments: a desperate woman, being physically dragged through an airport, pleading and begging not to be sent back to her home country. This scene has the requisite mix of dramatic power and audience involvement. But elsewhere the production paints in strokes that are too broad. Many of the centres staff, with a couple of exceptions, are depicted as one-dimensional villains, a dramatic shorthand that actually undercuts the power of the genuine testimony. The blend of video footage and dramatic sequences was also counter productive, emphasising the artificiality of the latter and thus, again, undercutting the potential power of the piece. Audibility was something of an issue too, which was especially important in a production so keen to impart valuable information to its audience. The venues set up made it easy to miss what was being said.
This production is doing necessary work. It is vital to make people think of asylum seekers, not as one big scary mass, but to see beyond the label, to see the people, to hear their stories. Campbells production tries to do that, to challenge and inform, but the method of the staging ends up muddying the message more than anything else. The on-screen statistics spoke loudly and the production left its audience with much too think about but, as a theatrical experience, it misses the mark.