Ludlow Fringe Festival 2019
A skilful deconstruction of modern British life through the starry-eyes of a newcomer
This brilliant, often very funny, neat little show brings us face to face with the complexities of obtaining British citizenship and the attendant everyday confusing nuances of language and behaviour as seen by Cecilia, a young Italian who (like so many young Europeans pre-Referendum) regards the UK and London especially as their ultimate dream destination. From her initial dealings with Home Office bureaucracy as she applies for her citizenship, her struggling with those who cannot pronounce her name and her finding employment and lodging, we are guided by a most excited and eager protagonist. It doesn’t take long though for us to recognise the underlying tragedy of immigrant life and labour in an increasingly hostile atmosphere. Cecilia employs the brilliant device of asking audience members to read out questions from ‘Life In The United Kingdom’ (the hefty tome that is the Home Office citizenship test guide), choosing questions that it was almost guaranteed no British person in the room would know the answer to. One jaunty answer detailing the rise of immigration from the West Indies in the 1950s sent a cold wind blowing through the audience in the wake of the Windrush scandal.
Cecilia’s writing weaves a skilful thread of underlying tension throughout the show and, despite her persistent optimism about the life she has chosen, Cecilia drops in telling little phrases that linger long in the mind afterwards. After her low-paid job in a fried chicken shop is halted by its closure for the evening she declares “I’ve lost £20 plus the money I steal from the till.” “When British people say Lovely they mean that’s disgusting – I hate you.” And my favourite “I love sausage rolls, you can’t find them anywhere else in the world”. That raised a specific laugh, considering what we know to be the more palatable cuisine of her Italian roots. As she moves through the vagaries of being invited to her landlady’s party to talking football with her new boyfriend, her bewildering dual nationality and fluency in both creates an exotic creature in both her native Italy and in London. Her comment “The country you remember is a projection, the one you dream of is an invention” was particularly well said.
Cecilia’s stage set is a triumph, featuring cut-out cityscapes that surround her and a tower block of boxes representing individual balcony-clad dwellings. As the show progresses, lighting appears in one apartment highlighting the sound of the remote male voice guiding her through English culture. As she describes various incidents she employs small hand-made postcards to represent the themes: The Queen, Flowers, a recycling bin, the fried chicken emporium staff badge, a sausage roll and Christmas presents. As she deals with each one they are placed onto the balconies and become an eccentric patchwork of British life. As the narrative moves towards July 2016 and the Brexit vote we all sense the storm clouds gathering and, inevitably, once that result is announced we see Cecilia’s world turn from a benign “Where are you from?” theme to a much more sinister “Why are you here?”. At the point of enormous racial tension breaking out against ‘foreigners’ she kicks down the set and leaves us with the collapse of the set representing clearly the collapse of support for foreigners. It’s a sobering and awful climax to this smart little show, knowing as we do in mid-2019 that this situation is still unresolved and becoming much worse …
With her initial recruiting of audience members to read from the Citizenship test paper with a coy “do I have any volunteers before I pick one?”, Cecilia holds the rapt attention of the audience and succeeds in completely holding the stage throughout her performance.
A timely, beautifully-realised and often very funny, exploration of what EU immigrants have to deal with in their attempts to make a life in their dream destination which, for them and us, is rapidly becoming a nightmare.