PSYCHEdelight’s “mixed ensemble” of refugees and European performers returns with a new production following Borderline, their satire of the Calais Jungle, which has been touring since 2016. With Welcome to the UK, a winding, sometimes overlapping series of devised vignettes, the company takes aim at the idiosyncracies and messiness of life for refugees and migrants in this country.
We’re joined in the largely bare space of The Bunker by much of the cast of Borderline, as well as additional company members. There’s art, for sale, on the walls, by Habib Sayat and Majid Adin, balloons on our seats, and white and red drapes on the ceiling. On top of a wooden stepladder is a man, glued to his phone.
One of Welcome to the UK’s strengths is its ease in letting its threads take as long as they need to unravel, allowing its full weirdness to be felt. The man on the stepladder stays there for most of the play. He is waiting for his refugee status to be granted, and for his wife and daughter to come and join him from Syria. We see horrific violence that might be happening to them, far away from him, perpetrated by figures dressed in black, but then the violence is danced away.
A woman arrives from Gambia for an arranged marriage, but is instead held captive by her husband and men in pig masks, held in the long spidery trails of her wedding dress at a ‘Haunted House’. She stays still there for most of the play, and her freedom is granted almost by accident. Everything seems random, but the opposite of lawless, the characters stuck in the incomprehensibility of UK bureaucracy.
The antagonist, waited upon by a diminutive Katie Hopkins and a crouching, red and white-masked translator (her “pretty”), is a woman with a cloud for a head and an accordion. She passes out judgments as she feels like it: more paperwork for one hopeful to fill out, pulled in an unending scroll from a cast member’s mouth.
“Let the waiting begin!” It never ends: for the licence to work, for the emotional rollercoaster (literal) to end, for legal refugee status, to be joined by loved ones.
In one of the cleverest sections, Baraa goes to his Home Office interview. He’s met on the way by Gandalf, who has been waiting hundreds of years for his own interview. “I was sixteen when I arrived. See?” He lifts up his long fake beard to show his youthful stubble underneath. There are many playful moments like this: Baraa’s interview is conducted by a fortune teller and an owl, and this same owl delivers the outcome, Hogwarts-style. It’s as good as any other explanation for the wait.
This production spins from hopelessness to levity in a moment. There’s a certain amount of awkward blocking – waiting for the required members of the ensemble to arrive from offstage for the next scene – and a slightly improvised feel to some of the repeating of lines. But the ingenuity of its stagecraft is impressive, a straightforward pleasure to witness. As are the occasional musical parodies: the well-meaning liberal is skewered by an appearance from Mary Poppins. At times chaotic, at others a little halting, it makes for a disarming and sinister dose of fairground silliness. This is theatre that refuses to form an orderly queue.
Welcome to the UK is on at The Bunker until 16th February. Details here.