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Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar: Fresh off the Boat!

| Hidden London, Theatre | 14/10/2013

Paradigm Theatre
Rehearsal photos:

Paradigm Theatre Company

Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar

A full coop at the Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar on a school night reminds one of the fortune of London-life and the riches always to be discovered. This is a good venue with tiered seating offering excellent new writing above a warm and friendly pub in the immediate vicinity of Highbury and Islington Stations.

The first of ‘two one-act plays about immigration’ opens with a cleverly scripted conversation by Sarah Pitard between dual mobile-phone calls. ‘Fresh off the Boat!’ immediately conjures images of Windrush but this drama centres on a white middle-class couple, in personable portrayals by Paul Tonkin and Lee Lytle. ‘A Border Story’ soon leads to direct dialogue with the audience as if you’re the wife’s confidante. It sounds as if she speaks from experience, and placing multi-ethic Britain in context of a global village it’s a shock. This is a politically-angled play at moments slightly over-detailed but the human drama is engagingly effective. Lytle brightens the stage with her likeable presence and featureful face counterweighted by Tonkin who, a little like a young Duncan Preston, is graceful and considerate in his craft.

Appreciatively blacker nearer close, the vicious attitudes of the British Border Agency prove inadvertently hilarious via their idiotic questioning. “Why did you marry an alien?” – “A what?” – “An American!” [spits on ground]. As if they represent the final vestige of Empire. I won’t reveal the ending but the negativism of the couple’s experience is more than a pity; we are left hoping that, actually, this isn’t as real as told.

Next up, narrator Oliver Gatz convincingly presents the unbelievable scenario of ‘The Utility People’: Eastern Europeans living in a utility cupboard unbeknown to Londoners Chloe and Jake (Antonia Reid and Matt Houlihan). Another black comedy in which the husband’s appraisal of the teenage stowaway – “He looks like his whole village has been ethnically cleansed…” – receives the biggest laugh. Clearly, it’s the way he tells ’em because I’m still scratching my head to understand why it’s funny. The two sets of couples (husband and wife; mother and son) cannot understand each other, though through-written in English Michael Ross’ script is pared and articulate. Initial favour descends to abuse of the immigrants’ goodwill, and you think the wife nuts for considering it sustainable. But it’s a doubly clever exposition of the wafer-thin pretences of Champagne Socialism (or its poor Prosecco cousin). Chloe berates colonialism prior to adopting its model, dexterously justifying slave labour in her un-stateliest of homes.

Theo Ancient in rehearsal.

Theo Ancient in rehearsal.

There’s scant characterisation of uninvited cupboard-guests Sarah Winn and Theo Ancient but Reid more than makes up for it: a controlling character controlling the stage. I like the way this reveals the dangerous, aggressive side of human nature. It’s a huge part of what the piece is about, traversing the ridiculous and obscene before returning to glib irony; reinforcing via humour the appalling situations ‘These People’ experience. Increasingly farcical, right up to the boy’s closing rant which cuts to the bone. Its unseating-ness effects total quietude due the vigorous efficacy of Theo Ancient. A reminder that the troubles of the world are all of the world’s troubles. The dismemberment of which, into just another after-dinner anecdote, really is believable.

‘A Border Story’ is directed by Eyal Israel

‘The Utility People’ is directed by Cat Robey

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