The Claim, Shoreditch Town Hall

by Laura Kressly

The sickly, yellow lights of a featureless meeting room are making Serge thirsty. He just wants some water, to tell his story and get back home to Streatham. An unnamed woman and man try and fail to listen to him, but they’re more concerned with whether his story is the kind that would enable their Western, colonial notion of helping.

This Kafka-esque, extended miscommunication capturing the experience of claiming asylum in Britain is frustrating and infuriating to watch, but achingly accurate. An earnest pair of unnamed civil servants, with their own agendas and distractions, cut and twist Serge’s clumsy English in a script that’s more of a dark, extended sketch than a complete play. Though the dialogue stumbles and overlaps, it’s delivered with precise sharpness and good pace under Mark Maughan’s direction.

Writer Tim Cowbury uses ambiguity, repetition and confusion to carefully create a murky and angering mess of red tape. A twisting, circular structure with little overt progress adds to the fidgety anxiousness that deliberately drags uncomfortably on – though perhaps too long, as it quickly becomes clear this story is going nowhere fast. The writing intuitively catches and snags on itself, like thorny undergrowth that slowly winds and tightens around anything that touches it. No one coming out of this encounter is left unscathed.

As much as it’s clearly critical of the asylum process in Britain, Serge’s experience applies just as well to other manifestations of British bureaucracy. The cultural obsession with sticking to the rules that often seem to exist for no reason thickly permeates this narrative. Combined with the structure, the show evokes helpless rage – but it’s the kind that’s necessary in contemporary British life.

The Claim runs through 26 January then tours.

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