Welcome to the UK
Reviewed – 25th January 2019
“a surreal and politically simple mix of moments which fail to deliver either laughs or insights”
Walking down into the Bunker Theatre in Southwark, you’re greeted by a “UK Passports to the right, EU to the left” sign above the door, and are handed a raffle ticket by a faux-bearskin-guard on entering the theatre proper. Then you sit down on some balloons, surrounded by a ribboned set surrounded by sketches and collages across the back walls. A strange and confusing introduction to a strange and confusing show.
Welcome to the UK, directed by Sophie NL Besse of PSYCHEdelight, studies the life of refugees and immigrants to the UK, and extrudes these ideas through a malformed mould which was obviously once meant to resemble a carnival. In theory, the joyous song, dance and performance on stage juxtaposes against the unhappy reality many new arrivals face to create a biting satire; in reality, the show is a surreal and politically simple mix of moments which fail to deliver either laughs or insights.
The authenticating foundation of having real refugees as actors ultimately subsides because, although many refugees can deliver the performance and presence necessary (think The Jungle at Playhouse Theatre), in Welcome to the UK these actors are not telling their own personal stories, but are almost always corralled into playing on-stage refugees. The actors are neither explored as real stories nor trusted as professional versatile actors.
It’s hard to find a substantial guiding light as the different pieces pass by the audience with scene changes you could park a car in; drag queens give way to a Gollum-like creature, followed by an emotional phone call entirely in Arabic, then back to the drag queen or a strange cloud-headed Theresa May. It only gets more dreamlike with pantomime scenes about Popeye, versions of Romeo and Juliet, and a bit where the song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ makes ISIS executioners drop their knives and dance into backstage. The carnival theme doesn’t just bulge at the seams, it bursts wide open at the climactic scene where a sinking boat in a storm is the not-so-subtle metaphor for a post-Brexit Britain.
It’s worth noting that the music was clever and versatile plus the singing brought many scenes the energy and professionalism they so badly needed. Reading the programme was almost as cryptic as the show, so this writer, unfortunately, can’t give credit where it’s due, but the actress playing our cloud-headed PM gave a brilliantly tight and skilled performance with an energetic and intimidating character, wonderful accordion playing and an exceptional vocal performance.
Ultimately, Welcome to the UK, fails where it has politics, but not performance. Like a cart with the horse set behind it, this show cannot keep a straight path but continuously veers outwards towards everything from Titanic-references to a funny joke about Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. Political Theatre has a long and illustrious history and left-wing Political Theatre in particular but Dario Fo this is not.
Reviewed by William Nash
Photography by José Farinha
Welcome to the UK
The Bunker until 16th February
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: