Under a Foreign Sky
Paula B Satanic
Unicorn Theatre and touring
Every day many thousands pass through Heathrow Airport and in the arrivals hall today, just out from passport control and customs, are Bojan, Drina and Ibi.
Drina, who is fourteen and comes from Serbia, is being met by her mother, already established in the UK as assistant manager of a warehouse. Bojan, nineteen, comes from Kosovo and is on a student visa; he's on his mobile ringing up all the addresses that he's been given for accommodation and not having much luck. Twelve-year-old Ibi, who had a red suitcase, is nowhere to be seen. He has completely disappeared. The name suggests he could be African but the woman claiming to be his mother when he arrived was white, but already it is clear that she isn't his mother.
This is a play that looks at why people come to Britain, what it is like to be in a strange land with people who speak a different language, live a different life and leave your friends and your own life behind, and what can happen to some of those who come - as one of the characters explains "to do what I can't do at home". There are themes of people trafficking, slave labour and forced prostitution that are touched on though not explicitly explored.
The emphasis is on three fairly simple story lines that left me feeling just a little short-changed. But that may be partly because (instead of the target school-age audience which I usually try to share such shows with) I saw an evening adult press first night that may have affected my own response. You are left with issues raised rather than explored within the play. But that can be perfectly appropriate when you are presenting a shortish piece for a target audience, not perhaps used to long concentration in a theatre, who will have the opportunity to explore them for themselves in the classroom afterwards.
Bojan wants to be a chef (he's seen Jamie Oliver's television programmes) and gets himself a menial job in a restaurant, illegally working long hours there instead of going to college, and dossing there to save money. Geraint Rhys Edwards plays him bouncing with enthusiasm, so it is not surprising the head chef gives him encouragement and support, but when some money disappears it is him the female manager points her finger at.
Drina's mother has totally embraced western ways, even Lady Gaga, but at first Drina refuses even to speak English, holding on to her home ties through computer and video links with her best friend back there. Simona Bitmate captures both her obstinacy and her isolation, keeping the audience on her side and Daisy Whyte's mother, well-meaning in her caring, is clearly separated by a different vision of what she wants.
We can only guess at Ibi's story. Instead we have that of Elma, a woman who is trying to trace him. She appears to be on her own, not working for any organisation, and she refuses to have the authorities called in, though she has recruited the assistance of a young man (also played by Yekinni) from some sort of immigrant organisation. Theirs seems a hopeless task as the time since Ibi went missing gets longer, but some information is discovered that tangentially throws light on other issues and, as the relationship with Yekinni's character possibly takes on a different dimension, Elma reveals some of her own story, promises of a good life and cheating exploiters. We learn just enough to enable Joanna Simpkins to turn what would otherwise be a mouthpiece into a character whose motives you can understand.
The restaurant manager and, the mysterious woman who took the abductors' money are also played by Whyte. The speed of the quick changes and the very different character the actors offer make the doubling in this play almost unnoticeable, fleshed out performances built from very little. It is the actors more than the story that ensures the play holds out attention.
"Under a Foreign Sky" plays at the Unicorn Theatre until 8th October 2011, then Watermans 16th November 2011. It will also be touring to more than 30 schools across the UK.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton