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… 😉

Review: The Nature of Forgetting at Shoreditch Town Hall

Theatre Re’s latest work, The Nature of Forgetting, premiered this week at Shoreditch Town Hall, where it was greeted by sell-out audiences and standing ovations. The three-night run was far too brief – but something tells me we haven’t seen the last of this beautiful and moving show.

Inspired by recent neurobiological research and interviews with people living with dementia, The Nature of Forgetting attempts to piece together their experience through the story of Tom, who’s 55 today. As he dresses for his birthday party, each item of clothing in his wardrobe brings back confused fragments of memory from his earlier life, and the people who played a part in it.

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Though there’s a clear story behind the memories – school days, courtship, marriage, career – what makes this show so powerful is not the events themselves, but the emotions at the heart of them. So while the details of each memory may be a little hazy, we do get to experience the joy of a bike ride, the stress and anxiety of a wedding day, the heartbreaking sense of loss evoked by an empty chair… There’s humour too, in Tom’s overbearing mother and class clown antics – and through it all, the recurring sensation of panic that comes with trying to pin down these elusive memories as they slip away. And importantly, it’s also not just Tom’s story but also that of the people who love him, reminding us that dementia doesn’t only affect the person who suffers from it.

At just over an hour, the show is essentially one single scene, which fades and reassembles as Tom is transported into his memories. The cast (Guillaume Pigé, Louise Wilcox, Eyglo Thorgeirsdottir and Matthew Austin) are in motion almost the entire time, together forming a well-oiled machine that ensures every prop – primarily the wooden school desks that form the show’s central motif – is in position and every performer always in exactly the right place. The result is a whirl of movement that appears entirely fluid and effortless.

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Just as important as the movement is the music, composed and performed by Alex Judd, accompanied by percussionist Keiran Pearson. Written in the rehearsal room as the show was taking shape, the score exquisitely mirrors the emotions on stage, and builds to a stirring climax for the final scene. There are some particularly powerful moments when Tom is struggling with his loss of memory and the soundtrack seems to bend and twist along with his ability to piece together his recollections.

It’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t been there to really experience what it must be like to lose their grip on memory, but this thoroughly researched and beautifully presented show offers us a glimpse into that world. It’s at times a scary picture – but The Nature of Forgetting reminds us that just because those events and emotions may be harder to recall, they’re not gone forever and will live on in Tom, however deeply buried they may be. It’s an uplifting note on which to end this unforgettable show.


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: Guillaume Pigé, The Nature of Forgetting

“The name of the company comes from the prefix ‘re’. It is the ‘re’ of re-discovering and re-imagining. For us it is not about inventing but about breathing new life into what is already there.”

Guillaume Pigé founded Theatre Re in 2009 while in training at the International School of Corporeal Mime in London. He was joined in 2011 by Katherine Graham, Malik Ibheis and Alex Judd and an international ensemble was formed, producing work that combines mime and theatre to examine fragile human conditions. Their last show, Blind Man’s Song, was a surprise (to me, anyway) entry in my top 10 of 2016, and they’re now looking ahead to the world premiere on 18th January of their latest project, The Nature of Forgetting.

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Inspired by recent neurobiological research and interviews with people living with dementia, the show tells the story of Tom, as he’s re-awakened on his 55th birthday by the tangled threads of his disappearing memories.

“As a company we work very collaboratively, and for this project we started by doing things, by moving, by playing,” says Guillaume. “A few objects very rapidly became central to the piece, like the wooden school desks for instance. We also collaborated with UCL Neuroscience Professor Kate Jeffery and interviewed older people and people living with dementia. The point was not to collect their stories or what they remembered, but to explore how they remembered. This was fascinating. The main question that guided our exploration was: what is left when memory is gone? We could not put the answer into words…so we made a show about it.”

The collaboration with Professor Jeffery proved invaluable to the creation of the piece: “She not only helped us to understand memory mechanisms, but she also helped us to gain a better understanding of the information we were getting through our interviews,” explains Guillaume. “She was also in rehearsal with us to support our physical and visual dramaturgy. In fact, this collaboration went so well that we will be organising a seminar with Professor Jeffery at UCL about the science behind the making of the show ahead of our premiere, where we will discuss how the concepts of the neurobiology of memory has shaped the making of the work.”

One of the unique features of Theatre Re’s work is composer and musician Alex Judd’s live music, which has been part of the company’s previous shows Blind Man’s Song, The Little Soldiers and The Gambler. “Alex’s music for this show is absolutely gorgeous and all created live from more than ten instruments on stage! It has all been composed in the rehearsal room as the piece was being developed. The music and the sounds are totally integral to the performance. Also, for the first time, Alex is joined on stage by a percussionist, Keiran Pearson, who adds different timbres, colours, and textures to the score.”

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

The show was also inspired by the work of theatre director Tadeusz Kantor: “I was originally drawn to the work of Tadeusz Kantor because the world of childhood memories (long term memory) became very rapidly central to the development of The Nature of Forgetting. I was especially inspired by pieces such as The Dead Class and Wielopole.

“While watching those pieces, I was fascinated by the mysterious raw visual and physical poetry that was developed on stage. Especially the use of ‘poor objects’ and the work of the actors; stylized and yet so real.”

The show premieres next week as part of the London International Mime Festival. For those not sure if mime is for them, Guillaume shares what first attracted him to the art form: “Everything. Absolutely everything. The disciplines, the imagination, the technique, the freedom, the vocabulary, the figures, the pieces and the whole world around it…

“I would like the audience to come out of the theatre with both a smile on their face and a tear in their eye.”

Book now for Theatre Re’s The Nature of Forgetting at Shoreditch Town Hall from 18th-20th January.