Barely a week after the last Tory MP has drank the last drop of Bollinger left in Manchester playing the turbo round of the conference cliché drinking game, days after each party has vied with each other to sound more xenophobic than the other two, onto the stage above the Hen & Chickens dashes The Paradigm Theatre Company with two poignant and funny one act plays about touchpaper that is the issue of immigration.
The first , ‘A Border Story’ is the story of Amy, though really it’s the autobiographical story of its writer, Sarah Pitard and the slings and arrows she had to endure in dealing with the UK Border Agency being married to a Briton, a story we American spousal expats know all too well. Denied a visa, the couple pack up and cart themselves off to live in France for six months and re-enter the UK under a special loophole called the Surinder Singh route. I know what you’re thinking at this point. How can an entertaining piece of theatre hinge on a legal loophole. Not the most promising material for performance with punch. But Paradigm make it work.
What with the wonderful chemistry between Amy, played with a deliciously ironic, bitter veneer of saccharine by Lee Lytle, and long suffering and affably British Brian, played with foppish charm by Paul Tonkin, one can’t help but like and root for these characters in their struggle. The story is told mostly through flashbacks and these were the highlights with phantom border agency officials of bureaucratic self-importance and French superiors working Brian slavishly down and out in Paris, Ruth Connelly making an effectively cold and sinister border agent impervious to smiling transatlantic charm. Gary Trainor is also worth mentioning in this department simply because he’s obviously realized long ago how valuable his Northern Irish inflections are for making the blood run cold with terror. These scenes were the ones in which the play worked best and captured the main character’s struggle most clearly. I found myself wishing there were more of them and just slightly less of Amy stopping to narrate for us. The ‘show don’t tell’ principle. Otherwise though, it made for a poignantly and philosophically entertaining, reflective piece.
The second play though, ‘The Utility People’ was comedy gold. A fiendishly sardonic look at guardianista gentrified armchair socialists, the story opens with a liberal couple, Jake, who works for Amnesty, and Chloe who works for, well, The Guardian, finding an immigrant mother and son in their utility cupboard. Instead of calling the authorities though, the couple make the immigrants work for them as domestic servants. There is a dark polemic twist near the conclusion that, had the writer ended it there, would have ruined the story, but it is a tragicomedy that clearly forces us to reevaluate our smugness about our beliefs and morality and what our convictions make of us. So it doesn’t sit and preach at us, but complicates things through comedy with a sharp edge to it, especially Oliver Gatz who absolutely steals the show as overly officious Border Agent Richard. I think I could have watched just him on stage and laughed all evening. The chattering liberal classes will love it. We do love to laugh at ourselves. It’s so ironic.
Combined, these short pieces make for a thought-provoking and fun evening well worth checking out.