Interview: Roman Berry and Natali Servat, Little Did I Know

Written by Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Little Did I Know is the story of a young girl, Aaneseh, who escapes from war-torn Syria by pretending to be a boy, and sets out for England. From Yarl’s Wood Detention and Removal Centre, she recounts her journey and the people she met along the way. The play, voted one of the top 3 in The Bread and Roses Theatre Playwriting Award 2016/2017, opens this week and runs until Saturday.

Little did I Know is a beautifully written piece, full of compassion and humour,” says director Roman Berry. “The Syrian Civil War started eight years ago and it has created this ongoing humanitarian disaster and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it. I hope that by telling Aaneseh’s narrative, it sheds a light on the current issue of the refugee crisis. Little Did I Know‘s themes of innocence, identity, humanity and survival reflect the refugees’ plight, and it needs to be shared and talked about. Theatre, after all, acts as a cultural space where society examines itself in a mirror and all of us certainly need to reflect and further act on this humanitarian disaster.”

Photo credit: Izzy Romilly

For Natali Servat, who plays Aaneseh in the one-woman show, her story also resonates on a personal level. “I am the child of refugees, so it’s a subject matter that has always affected me and meant a great deal to me,” she says. “It’s such an important story to tell for obvious reasons. People are dying every day as a result of a war that is incredibly hard to fully understand, and that has spiraled out of control. It’s important to remind people that Aaneseh’s story and the journey she is on is not by any means a rarity, it’s one which thousands of people go through each day, not only from Syria.

“I hope people will come out of Little Did I Know having a better understanding of the situation and recognising themselves in Aaneseh. It feels like such a stupid thing to say because it’s so obvious in a way, but these people are not any different to us and if we were faced with the same decisions to make, our choices wouldn’t be much different. We would all want to be met by support and love on the other side, especially after having lost everything and endured trauma that will follow you forever.”

The play charts Aanaseh’s journey as she sets out in search of safety, freedom and independence, growing along the way into a courageous young woman. “I love playing Aaneseh because she is such a complex and varied character to play,” says Natali. “We follow her during different stages of her early life, at first when she’s still a teenage girl living in Syria with a lot of her childlike innocence still intact. Later on, as she’s pretending to be a boy, something that she has to try and completely immerse herself into due to the fear of what might happen if the young men in the lorry she’s traveling in ever find out that she’s a girl. And ultimately, as the strong young woman she becomes, who has endured far more than she could have ever imagined. I love her strength, her determination, her ability to adapt, her generosity, and humanity. And the fact that she never gives up on her dreams. She fights till the very end and she never takes the easy way out, even though ‘easier’ paths present themselves during the journey. She is someone I would aspire to be.

“It’s a very interesting and emotionally complex journey to go on as an actor, not to mention physically as well. It’s also interesting to see the dichotomy between how she interacts with her family and later on in a collective of boys. It’s during this transition that she starts to understand that there are differences, some unfair ones, between boys and girls that she hadn’t fully realised before.”

Photo credit: Izzy Romilly

“I admire Aaneseh’s wit, defiance and survival instinct,” adds Roman. “Don’t mess with Aaneseh, I say.”

As difficult as the subject matter undoubtedly is, Roman has found working on the play a rewarding and eye-opening experience. “A lot of our primary research is in the writing itself,” he explains. “Doc Andersen-Bloomfield’s play has specified links to media footage and news articles, so it was a good place to start. Doc’s writing also allowed us to try out different forms. There are elements in the piece to try out music, movement and mix media to challenge our creative minds. Also collaborating with wonderful designers, like original music composed solely for Little Did I Know by Elliot Clay and other wonderful creatives. And with Natali’s ‘no fuss, focused, head down, let’s just do it’ approach to negotiating scenes, I definitely learnt a lot about the current refugee crisis and had so much fun throughout developing this challenging play on its feet.”

He’s honoured, too, to be directing one of the top 3 plays in last year’s Bread and Roses Theatre Playwriting Award: “The Award is such a great vehicle for any writers who wants to have their stories developed and shown as a professional production. Directing a piece from the Top 3 play has been a wonderful experience. Kudos to The Bread and Roses Theatre for this opportunity.”

Little Did I Know is at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 10th February.

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… 😉

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.

The Claim is at Shoreditch Town Hall until 26th January before continuing on tour – visit the website for dates and venues.

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… 😉

Interview: Instinct Theatre, Tea and Good Intentions

Lily Driver and Felicity Huxley-Miners co-run Instinct Theatre, whose original play, Tea and Good Intentions, comes to the Kings Head, Islington, for two performances in February. The play, written by Felicity, continues the company’s theme of topical and powerful theatre, with a look at the very first meeting between Adar, a Syrian migrant, and Margaret, a middle-aged housewife who has tentatively opened her home to him.


“Felicity and I met at drama school, Italia Conti, aged 18, on the acting course,” says Lily. “We started Instinct Theatre to create our own work and hoped for exposure, but we were surprised by the vast number of roles we ended up playing within the company. However the business, social, IT, writing and marketing skills that have developed as a product of running Instinct Theatre have been a happy bonus!

“I directed our first play, Sartre’s No Exit, in a small venue in Surrey in mid-2015. Felicity played one of the female leads. We had no budget and no real expectations of how it would go, but it was a sell-out run and we received great reviews. We decided to make Instinct Theatre official, and it bloomed from mostly passion, and trial and error.

No Exit was set in the round and the idea was to draw the audience in and make for a thought-provoking piece. This idea of wanting to affect the audience is how we reached our ethos of creating powerful and relevant theatre, addressing topics that are featured highly in current media. I don’t believe that the media has the best impact on people’s education on topics such as the Syrian migrant crisis; however this is where the vast majority receive their information. We wanted to create an entertaining, moving and informative play to give a wider view on the topic.”

In light of recent events, this is more important than ever. “Although President Trump’s drastic decision to ban seven nationalities from entering the US has faced a massive backlash from all over the world, there are vast amounts of people that would argue this is the correct decision – and this is due to manipulation by the media,” argues Lily. “However, last year there were 372 mass shootings caused by Americans in the US, killing 475 people. The recent list of nationalities banned from entering the US have caused zero fatal attacks. Two attacks were carried out by individuals with ties to the seven countries: the 2006 UNC SUV attack, and the 2016 Ohio State University attack. Neither of those plots resulted in American deaths.

“You can’t get more current than Tea and Good Intentions. A Syrian refugee is rehoused by a middle aged northern lady in a village in the north of England. It’s a touching and affective comedy that’s been featured in several new writing scratch nights in London, with wonderful reviews and comments such as, ‘All the components are there for a classic comedy.’ The first time a scene from the play was included in a new writing scratch night, the audience found it hilarious and really soaked up the details and characters of the play. And that’s when we realised that even when exploring serious issues, people are most perceptive when being entertained – which is the reason why the play was written in full as a comedy.”

Since the new writing scratch nights, there have been some changes: “We have a whole new experienced cast, and have also had the pleasure of working with a Syrian who came to England as a refugee and will now be performing in Tea and Good Intentions,” says Lily. “We were thrilled when Baraa Halabieh got in contact with us and said he wanted to be involved. Little did we know at this stage, Baraa had been very busy in the acting world since he arrived only nine months ago. And although he had no previous acting experience we learned quickly that he was very talented and an incredible asset to us.

“We’re also very excited to be working with director Adam Morley. Adam is an award-winning film and theatre director who’s worked extensively touring in the UK, on the West End and for Baroque Theatre Company. We met about a year ago at a workshop he was doing for Actor Awareness, and will also be co-producing a Greek comedy, Lysistrata, with him in autumn of this year.”

Book now for Tea and Good Intentions on 11th and 24th February at the King’s Head Theatre.

To find out more about Instinct Theatre, visit their website, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Review: Cargo at Arcola Theatre

We’re all used to hearing about refugees by now. A bit too used to it, actually; we hear the word so often these days that it’s begun to lose all meaning. It’s a sad but undeniable fact that the sight of terrified people risking everything to flee their homes has become ordinary, everyday… and with the click of a remote, even the most compassionate among us have the power to change the channel and dismiss the pictures from our minds. It’s something that happens to other people, from countries far away, so it’s easy to distance ourselves from the situation.

Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo offers its audience no such luxury. For 80 gruelling minutes, we’re trapped in the dark, claustrophobic belly of a ship with four terrified refugees: Iz (Jack Gouldbourne) and his big sister Joey (Milly Thomas), Sarah (Debbie Korley) and Kayffe (John Schwab). We don’t – at least initially – know where they’ve come from, or what’s led them to leave behind everything they know and love and embark on such a dangerous journey. All we know is that they’re headed for Europe, the promised land where a golden future awaits them… if they can only get there.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Director David Mercatali and designer Max Dorey pull no punches in their efforts to give us an authentic experience. Seated on wooden crates and plunged more than once into prolonged and total darkness, we’re kept in a state of constant, deliberate discomfort, and spared nothing; even the loo bucket is only inches from the audience (and yes, it does get used – more than once). As the journey unfolds in real time, the four characters form – and just as quickly break – alliances, swap stories, and try to decide who they can trust. And gradually, a truth begins to emerge that suddenly puts a very different complexion on our understanding of what – and who – a ‘refugee’ is.

In the tiny, cramped space, we’re treated to four exquisite performances from Cargo’s actors. Each of these characters has lived through horrors we can’t even imagine, and it’s affected them all in different ways. John Schwab is excellent as Kayffe, a mysterious American who constantly rewrites his own history until we can no longer tell truth from lies, and Debbie Korley gives a haunting performance as the fragile Sarah – even as she makes plans for a new life in Scandinavia, she can’t quite leave behind the things she’s had to do to get this far. In contrast, Jack Gouldbourne is almost puppy-like as Iz, full of innocent and heart-breaking optimism about the future, while Milly Thomas’ Joey is hardened and cautious, forced to take on the role of mother to her little brother, knowing deep down that she won’t always be able to keep him safe.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Don’t expect an easy ride with Cargo; it’s almost unbearably tense from the moment you step inside the dingy, cramped space, and it forces its audience to confront two very uncomfortable truths: first, this is happening right now to unimaginable numbers of people, and will continue whether or not we turn off the TV. And second, it might not be happening to us – but that doesn’t mean it never could.

Devastating and unsettling it may be, but this timely and compelling piece of theatre is nonetheless essential viewing.

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… 😉

Review: Transports at the Pleasance

Pipeline Theatre’s Transports, first performed in 2013, has been revived for a national tour, and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Though the play never makes any explicit reference to the current refugee crisis, it nonetheless offers a fascinating and intensely powerful insight into the emotional impact of being forced from one’s home and into a strange, and sometimes hostile, environment.

Transports is the story of two teenage girls. Lotte, the quiet, polite daughter of a rich Jewish family in Germany, gets on a train for England in 1939, not realising that she’s saying goodbye to her loving parents for the final time. Years later, Lotte waits anxiously for the arrival of her first foster child, a sullen fifteen-year-old named Dinah, who never knew her parents and likes to boast about the time a doctor said she had psychopathic tendencies. The two girls couldn’t be more different – and yet their lives end up on parallel tracks, as both struggle to adapt to the new home they never asked to be sent to, and to cope with the traumas of their past.

Transports at Pleasance Theatre

The girls’ interlocking stories are seamlessly presented in flawless performances from its cast of two. Juliet Welch plays the older Lotte – kind-hearted, anxious, who swears by her weekly routine and talks too much when she’s nervous – and Mrs Weston, who takes in the teenaged Lotte on her arrival in England and soon grows to love her. (She also, briefly, plays Lotte’s mother.) Hannah Stephens, meanwhile, takes on the challenge of playing the hugely contrasting roles of the two teenagers. It’s incredible to watch the chemistry between the two actors, and how they’re transformed in every way – clothes, voice, body language – as they switch from one character to the other and back again.

Alan Munden’s set is simple and effective, dominated by two huge train tracks that run from floor to ceiling and frame the action. Everything we don’t see is brought to life by sound effects: passing traffic, the sounds of the school playground, and even Lotte’s cat, Oskar, feel as real as if they were right in front of us. During the opening scene, as Lotte and Dinah stood by the side of the road, I swear I could smell petrol fumes, and have no idea if this was an extraordinary attention to detail or just my imagination.

Transports, Pleasance Theatre

Unsurprisingly for a story that deals with the Holocaust and childhood trauma, Transports packs quite a punch, particularly in the second act (one scene drew an audible gasp from the audience; another had us all in floods of tears). The addition of poetry, in a surprising twist that makes us view Dinah’s character in a whole new way, only increases the emotional intensity – not to mention the revelation that Lotte’s story is based on that of a real person – designer Alan Munden’s mother, Liesl.

On the way out, someone asked me if I’d enjoyed the play, and I wasn’t sure how to respond, because I’m not sure this is the kind of story that you can enjoy. It’s intense, and shocking, and it made me feel very, very sad – not just for Lotte, Dinah and Liesl, but because now, all these years later, there are still people going through this kind of trauma every single day.

But was it brilliant? Absolutely. Transports is probably one of the most original and interesting pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. Beautifully performed and lovingly produced, it’s a hugely important play that deserves to be seen.

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… 😉