Jerwood Upstairs (Royal Court Theatre) 4th October, 2013
‘I don’t understand. I’m British. – Technically, you’re not.’
Ironically, the Royal Court Theatre’s press officer coined the phrase; ‘The Angry Young Men’ to promote John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger. The label was later applied by British media to describe young British writers who were characterised by disillusionment with traditional English society. The word ‘angry’ is probably inappropriate as it was more a drive to raise awareness for what they perceived as the hypocrisy and aspirations for genuine change.
Similarly, Rachel De-lahay’s Routes is driven predominantly by anger – at the bureaucratic absurdity of the immigration system. Here, we home in on the human cost suffered by migrants coming to the UK from Africa. The message is, thankfully, devoid of Daily Mail sensationalism or sentimentalism and, no doubt unable to engage support from any UKIP member of the audience. The politics are sound and profound.
Simon Godwin’s 70 minute production is slickly directed. Paul Wills’s angular stark set of two plain chairs as the only props prevents any distraction from the issues explored. Through two interlocking narratives, De-lahay juxtaposes the grim experience of those facing deportation from the UK with that of those trying to come here illegally.
Living in Britain, orphaned Somali teenager, Bashir ( Fiston Barek), finds himself in a half-way house, after serving time for a petty crime. Territorial hostility wages when he shares a room with another Feltham young offender, Kola, a volatile and unhappy man. Calvin Demba ‘s truculent Kola is edgy with his street smart urban dialogue.
Bashir is soon horrified to find he is liable to be deported back to the country of his birth, despite never having been there since he was a baby. Anka (Anamaria Marinca ),as a naturalised Polish liberal volunteer, struggles to offer the right level of comfort to vulnerable people like him. Marinka achieves a charismatic, soulful delivery which exposes Anka’s own vulnerability. The impotence of achieving any success in her appeals is couched in absurdist humour:
‘Everyone knows,‘ Bashir says, ‘that if your solicitor has got a ponytail you’re going to jail‘ which wryly sums up the conundrum of immigrant regulations. He is left in a soulless state of limbo.
A parallel narrative is rooted in Nigeria where Olufemi (Peter Bankole) is trying to return to the UK under a false identity to his family, having been deported following a drunk and disorderly conviction. There is entertaining exchange between naïve Femi and the savvy Abiola (Seun Shote ) who offers some rudimentary coaching in illegal-entry technique whilst extorting endless money to finance bribes to assist Femi’s passage. Abiola’s cynical repost that Femi aims to‘live in a country that is thriving, to go embarrass us and beg borrow and sneak into a country that is sinking’ is an indictment on both Lagos and London.
Routes also opens up the borders of friendship and family. Lisa, Kola’s mother (Claire Lams), works for the Border Agency. It’s her job to stop people like Olufemi from entering the UK. At the same time, De-lahay’s script cleverly forces us to be critical of Lisa who is trying to distance herself from her son –‘No good comes from anyone left on their own.’ Yet throughout the various character pairings in the play, there is an almost existential cry for belonging – an emotional vacuum that cannot be filled by the word ‘love’, only the notional prospect of being utterly abandoned.
De- lahlay is a writer whose work I eagerly look forward to seeing again.
Routes is part of the Royal Court’s Jerwood New Playwrights programme, which aims to discover and support the next generation of playwright prodigies, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Rachel De-lahay was also part of the Royal Court’s Unheard Voices Writers Programme, which aims to support and develop writers whose voices are under-represented on British stages – she was in the group in 2009 aimed at young Muslim writers. De-lahay is certainly a writer to watch out for in the future.