National Alien Office

Stanislas Cotton (translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen-Poncelet)
Riverside Studios

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Given the recent immigration debate heralded by the general election, this play about asylum seekers had a timely opening night.

The play begins with an arresting scream and, in Sunset Boulevard style, the dead body of the central character. The rest of the play is a flashback to explain why this tragedy occurred.

Michael Brown plays an immigration officer, whose job it is to assess the validity of the claims of an asylum seeker, Asha, played by Nigerian-born actor Nick Oshikanlu. But the play is not actually a two-hander, rather two monologues. The immigration officer starts by claiming he is Mr Positively Average. He has a wife and a five year old son. He sees his place of work is a "sorting office". But it is clear that he is there as a barrier - allowing applicants to stay in the country is the exception rather than the rule. The immigrants are given a number. Like a Lottery, he asks himself which one will be the lucky number - who will be allowed to stay? He repeats the mantra: "we are not racist". He and his colleagues are just doing a job.

It's a physically demanding role as Brown leaps, dances and runs around the stage using the wire-rack props as a desk, a toilet and finally a window to jump out of. But though it is a monologue, he is not alone on stage. He is accompanied by cellist, Adrienne Quartly and accordionist, Karine Chevalier. The music has the effect of being another character. In the absence of an actor, it answers the intrusive questions of the immigration officer with discordant sounds. In the quieter, more reflective moments, it feels like a film noir soundtrack - accompanying a man who is isolated grappling with his demons.

The play relies heavily on imagery. For example, the officer's constipation symbolises the fact that he is a "clogged up cog" in the system. His job of turning away the asylum seekers is clearly beginning to weigh on his conscience. He is starting to question his own humanity. When Asha faints, instead of sympathy he believes this is some new clever strategy. However Asha recovers and asks, "As a human being, may I stay in your country"? The application is rejected but when he is asked, "Where's the human being in you", it triggers a devastating response and the officer kills himself.

Then it is Asha's turn to tell his story. Oshikanlu gives a sympathetic and energetic portrayal of a man who, far from being a 'sponger' doesn't really want to leave his own country and is satisfied with very little. However, when he is forced by violence to flee, his one hope is that his child will eventually return and liberate his country.

The play is efficiently staged and directed by Veronique Van Meerbeek who uses the stage and space imaginatively. The set is plain - lots of wire racks which the actors move and use as different items of furniture. However, although Stanislas Cotton's play was topical and held the audience's attention, it failed to make an emotional impact. It was a brave move to tell the story for the first hour solely from the point of view of the immigration officer. But I couldn't help feeling that we cared more for the plight of the asylum seeker and the suicide of the immigration officer therefore didn't really hit the mark.

Runs at the Riverside until 22nd May

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart

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