Street of Strangers
Writer and Lyricist/ Director: Chris Speyer; Composer/Musical Director: Ieuan Goch ab Einion
Monster Productions - On Tour
Review by Peter Lathan
The civil war in Sudan has lasted nineteen years, cost 1.3 million lives and displaced 4.4 million people, yet it is largely unreported in the western press. At the start of the new millennium, the number of people of concern to UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) was 22.3 million - one out of every 269 people living on the earth.
Britain admits less than 1% of the world refugee population.
These are some of the facts given in the Street of Strangers programme and they form the background to the play.
From this one would assume that Street of Strangers is a polemical piece, a political statement, perhaps even a bit of propaganda. It will be, perhaps, a grim play, showing the sufferings of the refugees and even, perhaps, the heartlessness of British immigration policy and the officials who administer it.
One might expect this, but that isn't what we get.
Monster Productions aims to "develop and expand audiences for children's and family theatre," so, although all of this is suggested by the show, it is not its central feature. Rather we are presented with an entertainment based upon three stories from, in turn, Persia, Morocco and Kenya. They are folk tales, similar in many ways to others from around the world. The Persian story, The Wayward Princess, for instance, is very close to Lear, with the Princess a Cordelia figure.
What the stories have in common is that they deal with people who are in some ways dispossessed, people whose situations could well drive them to flee their own countries and seek refuge in somewhere like Britain. They are, in fact, told by refugees (waiting for the lorry which will transport them illegally to Britain) whose own stories are simply sketched out for us: the focus is not on them of their experiences but on the folk stories they tell.
This much more subtle approach is the more effective for being subtle: it seduces rather than hits you in the face with its message.
This seduction is helped tremendously by the music of The Baghdaddies, a group whose Balkan musical roots are influenced by modern dance, jazz and ska. They're a multi-talented group, playing, between them, sixteen instruments, and they perform Ieuan Goch ab Einion's music with great panache.
The show works well. It makes its point without getting at all shrill or too heavy, and it certainly entertains the full age range at which it is aimed (9+). There is much spectacle - an effective, flexible set and colourful and equally effective lighting.
There were some problems with sound balance, and at least one radio microphone cut out intermittently, but otherwise the techical side went well. Of curse, turing productions of this complexity will always hit tech problems: the sort of thing a dress or tech rehearsal would pick up tends to appear on a first (or only) performance on tour. Often I find I am possibly a little over-critical about such things, but I did hear more than one member of the audience comment on the balance during the interval and it has to be said that it didn't happen in the second half.
I understand that this was the first performance after a break and it did show. It was a little slow in places and, paradoxically, at times diction was a little slipshod, but these are minor quibbles and the audience went away well satisfied.
And it got its message across. As Aluel, the Sudanese teacher, said at one point, "I want to know what it's like to be stood in front of a class and be reasonably certain that they will all be alive next day."
You can see Street of Strangers -
Tues 14th Sat 18th May - Palace Theatre Centre, Westcliffe on Sea
Thurs 23rd - Sat 25th May - Middleton Hall, University of Hull
Tues 28th - Thurs 30th May - Whitley Bay Playhouse
Thurs 6th - Sat 8th June - The Pier Theatre, Bournemouth
Tues 11th & Wed 12th June - Stanley Civic Hall, Co. Durham
Thurs 13th & Fri 14th June - Phoenix Theatre, Blyth, Northumberland