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Bibs, Boats, Borders & Bastards
The Cockpit
13th August 2016

★★★☆☆

Publicity photograph for Bibs, Boats, Borders & Bastards

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Bibs, Boats, Borders & Bastards, as you might guess from the title, is about refugees, and more specifically the current wave of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Given the subject matter, you're probably expecting this production to be a serious drama, perhaps with some heartfelt stories to boot. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but while there are indeed plenty of heartfelt stories, this is actually a comedy. Or at least I think it is. Oh, let's just call it a show and be done with it. Bibs, Boats, Borders & Bastards is pretty hard to categorise: it includes plenty of comedy and laughter, puppetry, music and singing, a few facts here and there, and some tear-jerking moments (yes, I'll admit it, I did cry a little).

The production starts when we are greeted by a clapping crowd at the door to the theatre. I'll be honest, I wasn't quite sure what was meant by this. Were we being clapped for our support of fringe theatre, our luck at not being refugees, or indeed were we meant to be part of the production, clapped for making it this far on our journey? I still don't know, although it was slightly unnerving, so if this was director Andre Pink's intention (given the unsettling conditions in which refugees find themselves) it worked. Once you are safely in your seat, you spot a few individuals wandering around the stage, pensive and wearing Eastern attire - the refugees. And then it all kicks off.

A 13-strong cast perform a series of mini sketches, telling the stories of refugees, their countries, and the current Western attitudes towards them. These sketches are all quite different, ranging from re-enactments, dance numbers, musicals, puppetry, and circus-themed acts. The production would have benefited from thinking about the links beyond the broad subject matter more carefully at times and a bit more coherence, however it is still relatively easy to follow the different elements.

The circus-themed bits were some of my favourites, particularly the play on the famous "saw-a-person-in-half" box trick. Transported to ISIS territory, we are introduced to the glamorous female assistant (clad in a headscarf of course) who prances on the stage, clearly enjoying the attention. The "magician" then asks her if she is a woman (well, duh), and reminds us that she isn't allowed out except for essential matters. It is decided that this is essential. She gets in the box and further enquiries follow. The answers eventually lead to her losing first her hand and then her head for the rules she has broken. The comedy and audience interaction (we are witnesses to the "crimes") work well here, with the underlying message coming out through the humour.

The re-enactments range from stories about life under ISIS to the journey of a refugee. The drowned boy Alan Kurdi inevitably features, as do beheadings. For me the more interesting parts, and perhaps the most hard-hitting, are the things you don't always consider. The part that brought tears to my eyes was seeing three refugee women with blood-stained legs waving their one and only heavily soiled sanitary pad. With a few more scenes like this, the emotional impact would be even higher, as would the star rating.

Puppets are used in many of the sketches to represent children. I think this is a really creative idea, and given the puppets' oddly shaped faces, it fits in well with the theme that refugee children have lost their normal childhood innocence. The singing numbers, on the other hand, are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the singing, particularly one woman's haunting refugee song, is pretty strong, but in some numbers a few of the voices are out of tune. The main dance number is the Hungarian border guards' dance - dressed like a pop group in mock army attire, they tell us how the refugees won't get through. It sounds slightly mad, and it is, however as a way to highlight the challenges facing refugees in a comic way, it works!

The sketches that don't work as well focus on the history of the countries and Western politicians' actions. While there are some good comic moments, such as Greece and the UK being kicked off the EU's main table in what is almost a game of musical chairs, the histories and current actions are simplified to such a degree that they don't fulfil their intention of provoking further thought. It would have been better to stick to the tales of individuals, both refugees and Westerners, where it is easier to raise awareness in a short sketch.

This is a great first show from Backpack Theatre, and while there are a few things to think about for next time, I really enjoyed the production. The fact that I went home and vowed to donate to a refugee charity shows that serious messages can be conveyed in a light-hearted and comic way. I'm sure this talented group will set sail again, they clearly have a passion for storytelling.

Bibs, Boats, Borders & Bastards ran from 13th to 14th August 2016 at the Cockpit, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Marylebone (Bakerloo)



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