FringeReview Scotland 2013
Star has arrived in Scotland with Mama into a faceless housing scheme full of terrors and fears that scares her until the scheme takes them to its bosom but it is unable to protect them from the authorities who deny them safety but provide a dawn raid instead.
The story is complex with some very interesting layers. Firstly we meet Sarah Jane and Billy, inhabitants of the tower block in which asylum seekers are being kept. Billy appears a decent sort, left behind in a tower that was once filled with excitement and promise. Sarah-Jane represents some of the reasons as to why that promise left; she is a foul mouthed, vulnerable and mouthy mother who would be “well known” to all, including the authorities. She is better known to others than her children that have been taken into care. Between them come Star and Mama. Star is a young 10 year old dreamer who tells the story of a mother albatross whilst alone in her bedroom. Initially she befriends Billy and then imagines Dog Man to help her through each episode in her life. It includes the visit of a well meaning social worker, Janice. Janice begins like a newby before she grows into the type of support that both Mama and Star need to settle but not to be granted permission to settle. Similarly Sarah-Jane becomes a good neighbour and friend to Mama and Star, helping Mama to become more fluent in English. But before we become too comfortable the persistent arrival of letters from the Home Office foretell an eventual visit that was planned but not welcome. Mama and Star leave but not by choice.
This was a multi layered piece that had been a very well received rehearsed reading some time ago. In its structure, playwrite AJ Taudevin took the poetry of another language and culture and sat it square in the middle of a cluttered and seemingly uncultured high rise in Scotland that underlined how beautiful the simple story told was. It mattered not that I had no idea what language was spoken by Mama and Star but the beauty of its tones and the lyrical way it was used cut through the harsh reality of Sarah-Jane’s industrial vocabulary. The narrative structure was strong in all ways bar one. I was unsure and remain so regarding Dog Man. I understood the need for someone with whom Star could speak and an imaginary friend seemed perfect but having it doubled with Billy, did not, for me work. At first I could imagine that having been befriended by Billy, Star was likely to develop an imaginary guardian in his image but the image of an older man looking in upon a young girl’s bedroom was always likely to be a disturbing one.
This was however a wonderful cast to watch. Both Shvorne Marks and Joy Elias-Rilwan were spell binding, never less than enthralling and avoided the cliché ridden performances that playing “types” could have given us. Mama could be forthright and rude as well as welcoming and pleasant when demanded. Star was just a joy. They were however backed up by two fantastic performances from Billy Mack and Pauline Knowles. Both doubled and were exceptional. Though I may have had my doubts about the Dog Man, Billy Mack was never less than convincing in either role whilst Pauline Knowles had two extremes delivered with consummate subtlety that made both Sarah-Jane and Janice deliver convincingly; I just wish that Billy Mack had got a costume change as a help like Pauline.
The stage was a run down high rise flat. The use of one of the walls being transparent to allow Dog Man to use it as an entrance when he became bolder or more real was largely effective. It underlined the fallacy of many who believe that refugees live in re modelled penthouses with white goods coming out their ears. As a production it was of a high standard within Refugee Week where we can expect the worthy and hope for the competent; here was a piece of polemical theatre that was narrative driven but nevertheless highly effective in giving insight top the issues that were the cornerstone of Refugee Week.
Issue based drama can come with a health warning: it will challenge but not always as a piece of professionally produced theatre but as an angst ridden piece of agitprop many years past its sell by date. It tends to make a political rather than a creative mark. Here we had a piece with a full and highly appreciative house that shows why theatre of this kind is vital. It tells a story, sure but also shines a light on the plight of those without a strong enough voice; though Janice would frighten any sheriff officer away from any door!
I found this a highly effective piece of theatre that has lived long in my memory. Judging by the people around me there were plenty there that were already convinced of the politics whilst also supportive of the cause of using theatre as a political medium. That notwithstanding it deserves a bigger audience and whilst the Tron was full I am sure there was enough promise in here that a co production with a larger organisation would do no harm…
I left with the sense of having seen a highly effective piece of theatre that was both entertaining and thought provoking. The obvious issue for me was in the role played by Billy Mack being two people. I don’t think it worked, particularly as the clothes were exactly the same. Having said though, I was mightily impressed by writer AJ Taudevin and will be looking out for her work in the future.