Fast Labour

Steve Waters
Hampstead Theatre
(2008)

Publicity photo

Sometimes in theatre, the message can be far more dramatic and important than the medium. That is certainly the case in Steve Waters' static play about the lives of illegal immigrants to the UK and the economic consequences of their presence.

The action centres on the exploits of Victor, played by Queer As Folk star Craig Kelly. When we first meet him, this former factory owner in the Ukraine looks like a tramp and is delighted to get taken on in the smelliest of jobs as a fish gutter in a Scottish factory.

Without papers or rights, and completely unable to speak the language, subjects like the National Minimum Wage and the Working Time Directive are not within his cognizance, let alone his vocabulary.

Gradually, with the help of his muckers, Roger Evans' humorously cheerless Aleksei, and Andrius played by Joseph Kloska, both also from the former USSR, Victor begins to climb the greasy pole to wealth and respectability. In fact, the greatest assistance comes from his pretty Scottish girlfriend Anita, given real charm and depth by stage debutant Kirsty Stuart.

Anita is not only of value in bed but when the immigrants set up Fast Labour, an employment agency for their compatriots, her accent and use of the English language are invaluable.

Victor unbelievably quickly moves from down and out to executive, the business turning over an annualised £1 million within three months. From there, the only way is up as he swallows any moral qualms to make money.

An inevitably tragic climax is heralded by the arrival of Victor's wife, Charlotte Lucas as Tanya, and almost simultaneously the well-named Grimmer (Mark Jax), an English businessman on the make who has the slimy knack of failing to charm anyone with his empty blandishments but then bullying them into submission anyway.

The staging is most unusual, with a bland set topped by a triptych of video screens, excellently creating the atmosphere of Scotland and then the Fens, where the need for immigrant labour appears unquenchable.

Steve Waters makes some really telling points about the economic impact of migrants like these both in the UK and at home, as well as the terrible conditions that gang masters impose on their submissive workers.

The playwright has been rather untimely, as Anglo-Ukrainian novelist, Marina Lewycka got there first with her novel Two Caravans. On the page, she had far more scope to investigate the subject as well as a higher joke quotient, although some of Waters' wry commentary on linguistic and cultural differences is highly amusing.

Even so, Fast Labour feels overly-long at 2½ hours but might be worth a visit for its pithy political content and investigation of a subject that has hitherto not been addressed on stage as often as it should be.

Ray Brown reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Reviewer: Philip Fisher