views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Fresh Off The Boat
The Hen and Chickens
8th October 2013


Immigration is a hot-button topic at the moment. Whether it's the questionable "go home"" vans, the scaremongering stories of how literally all of Bulgaria and Romania are coming to live here or the rise of UKIP and the EDL's ever foamy-mouthed presence at the fringes of British politics. But outside of the headlines it's an issue that rarely impacts on the comfortable world of the middle classes, perhaps only to question if they are paying their cleaner, Marta, the living wage. But imagine if you were born here, had a right to live here, and suddenly you were somehow inconvenienced by the ludicrous Borders Agency system? That's the basis for Fresh Off The Boat, a double-header of plays put together by Paradigm Theatre Company.

The first, A Border Story, is based on American writer Sarah Pitard's actual experiences in trying to stay in the country with her husband while heavily pregnant. Here, she's represented by Amy (Lee Lytle). As her visa has expired and her actor hubby Brian (Paul Tonkin) can't persuade the Home Office to take his self-employment income into account, they are forced to live in France for six months to take advantage of EU immigration rules. By anyone's measure it's a ludicrous situation for someone to find themselves in, doubly so for a British national and a US woman.

Of course, because it's a true story, Pitard communicates her frustration and ideas effectively, focussing not just on the idiocy of the system, but on the very read strain on Amy and Brian's relationship. Although she sways towards inelegant exposition-heavy dialogue (direct to the audience, on a radio show, on phones to the character's parents) some is entirely necessary to keep their plight moving onwards. But the character's voices feel honest and you are rooting for the couple at they live out of the litany of suitcases that make up the set. Lytle and Tonkin too project an endearing sweetness and naivety even if they occasionally stray into the saccharine.

But director Eyal Israel offsets this - and the realism - by ensuring there are plenty of larger-than-life supporting characters. In particular Earl Kim, sporting a ridiculous moustache of what appears to be orange peel, does a fantastic job as an overblown French restaurant manager. These moments of bombast prick the bubble of worthiness so it never feels like self-pity.

The second, Michael Ross's Utility People is an entirely different beast. More a straight comedy than Pitard's, it will make you laugh more than it will inspire your rancour and sense of injustice. It follows liberal couple Jake (Matt Houlihan resembling Charlie Brooker after a crash diet) and Chloe (Antonia Reid) who discover a pair of immigrants - a Mother (Sarah Winn) and Son (Theo Ancient) - living in their utility cupboard. Presented almost as a modern fairy tale by immigration official and storyteller Richard (Oliver Gatz), it explores the potential of Guardianistas to be complicit in the exploitation of the vulnerable who are acquiescent for a place to live.

I need to preface my main criticism with the fact that Ross' piece, bolstered by Robey's sparky direction, is very funny. Gatz's dry, direct-to-audience delivery is carried off expertly, with pauses in all of the right places and a line in astute improvisation. Likewise, the comedy of manners elements to the writing land strongly as the pair attempt to come to terms with their interlopers. Each of the cast do their best in making their characters thoroughly unlikable - with the possible exception of Winn, who is just trying to muddle along and make the best of a bad situation.

But the problem is that the satirical elements don't have fangs. Ross should be applauded by punching up and representing the immigrants as arguably more human than our fellow countrymen. Still, there's absolutely nothing that absolves intellectual liberals of all responsibility and guilt like laughing at themselves - I should know. As a consequence, the piece's tone comes across more like Michael McIntyre set about man drawers, shoes and olives or an episode of My Family than an angry class rant highlighting injustice. It wants to have its croissant and eat it too.

But for for their few faults, the pieces make you think, make you chuckle and occasionally make you want to write to your local MP to vent. To reappropriate a famous phrase sullied by those who would rather see Amy, Mother and Son hang than give them access to our country - "You couldn't make it up!"

Fresh Off The Boat ran from 8th to 12th October 2013 at the Hen and Chickens.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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