Review: The Claim at Shoreditch Town Hall

Based on two years’ first hand research into the refugee experience in the UK, Tim Cowbury’s The Claim takes a little while to get going – but when it does, it packs a massive punch. Intensely (and deliberately) frustrating, the play sets out to be provocative, and does so with such success I could actually feel my blood pressure rising in response.

Photo credit: Paul Samuel White

But let’s back up slightly. The Claim is the story of Serge, who fled to the UK from Uganda a year ago, to escape being sent back to his home nation, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Something bad happened there when he was ten; we know this because he tries repeatedly to explain it to the two officials he meets when he decides to apply for asylum in the UK. Unfortunately, Serge finds himself facing a distinct lack of understanding on either a linguistic or emotional level, with both members of staff too caught up in their own petty dramas to pay attention. The interview culminates in a farcical three-way interrogation, in which all Serge’s responses are wildly misinterpreted to paint a picture so far from reality all he – and we – can do is gape in appalled disbelief.

Mark Maughan’s production stages the interview more like a court appearance, with Serge forced to sit centre stage under the glare of harsh strip lighting, and at which the audience’s presence is not only acknowledged but welcomed. While the circumstances are exaggerated, however, the way in which Cowbury’s script manipulates Serge’s words feels all too plausible, with all three actors perfectly nailing the complex timing of the dramatic and fast-paced exchange. There’s also a clever play on language; though we hear everything in English, a large part of the conversation is in reality taking place in French – and while this is initially a source of comedy, it soon becomes a dangerous and insurmountable barrier.

What it all comes down to, ultimately, is that Serge – who has a job, a home and a life in the UK – doesn’t fit the one-dimensional image the two officials expect from a refugee. Played by Ncuti Gatwa, he’s charming, likeable and generally pretty relaxed, eventually cracking not out of desperation over his plight but out of simple fury at not being listened to. Consequently, Yusra Warsama’s cold, disinterested B assumes he must have something to hide, but ironically it’s Nick Blakeley’s A, who repeatedly insists he wants to help, that ends up doing the most damage.

Photo credit: Paul Samuel White

The Claim is not what I’d call an enjoyable play, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a very good play, or that I didn’t respond quite powerfully to it. The inclusion of the audience in the story is no accident, and prevents us from smugly sitting back full of righteous anger at the two nameless officials. We’re complicit in this particular encounter, and it forces us to wonder how we ourselves might react in A and B’s shoes. There are no easy answers – but maybe simply listening is a good place to start.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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