Upstart Theatre, Highway Productions & Pathos München
Shoreditch Town Hall
There is a short sketch in the early part of Phone Home in which the actor Simon Carroll-Jones reads aloud a serious of cards which he then throws onto the floor. The sketch is entitled “Help” and the cards each give one idea about the way we can help refugees.
Many of the suggestions are thoughtful and imaginative. A few are frivolous. All are sympathetic to refugees, but they are read so fast in such a monotone voice it is hard to catch what is being read or even understand the point that is being made.
That is part of the difficulty with the show which in ninety minutes gives us fifteen sketches linked by the subject of migration. In theory, that gave an average of six minutes a sketch but we should also take into account the small amount of time it takes to introduce the show’s concept and the odd delay hooking up with partners in other countries who become part of the performance.
Phone Home has been created by theatre companies from Greece, Germany and Britain. It is inspired by stories they have heard from migrants. The resulting production is linked up by video and simultaneously performed in the cities of Athens, London and Munich. It is also live-streamed for free.
There is not a great deal you can do with a six-minute sketch. You are not going to develop a plot, a character or very much of anything else. Maybe that was the purpose; to replicate in a more sympathetic way the fragmentary nature of the images and information we generally get about the migrant crises.
Some sketches work like photographs, giving us a mini-snapshot of scenes we come to associate with migrants. In “The Swimmer” by Erie Kyrgia, a woman Olympic swimmer describes the most desperate swim of her life as being the one she swam with the only three other swimmers on a stranded refugee boat pulling it to safety. She recalls her parents watching helplessly from the boat
Other sketches give a more extended view of the refugee experience. In Zodwa Nyani’s “Memories of Leaving”, we hear what might have been the diary entries of a young Zimbabwe refugee in the UK from her early childhood to adulthood.
Nora Schussler’s “The Officer” gives us a sympathetic picture of someone involved in deporting refugees.
The most dramatically tense piece is Zodwa Nyani’s “Emergency Call” in which a distressed fifteen-year-old 'phones for help from the back of a truck in which the smuggled refugees are beginning to have difficulty breathing.
Not all the sketches work. It was difficult to believe much about one in which parents talk on Skype to their son, a journalist, and his Muslim partner in another country. It seemed like the first improvisation of a devised attempt at social comedy.
“The Trafficker” by Erie Kyrgia is an atmospheric monologue but it does simply confirm our worst prejudices about those who transport refugees in small boats at an exploitative and often fatal cost to their human cargo.
But the unease with the show really emerges with two cynical sketches mocking people’s concern for refugees.
The sketch that opens the show and returns as the penultimate sequence uses video footage and live action to recreate the Charlize grand fundraising gala for refugees. The celebrity stars drink champagne and applaud their own efforts until of course they grow weary of applauding themselves and one by one abandon the effort.
In Tom Mansfield’s “Referendum”, smiling villagers selfishly vote by 52% to 48% to refuse to accept the eight strangers who are refugees.
Alongside the fragmentary images of refugees, we are left with the criticism of celebrities who have tried to express concern and the majority of the population who have little power to do anything about the situation.
Surely that has the unfortunate effect of simply echoing the narrow debate of politicians and media who would prefer we forget the wars they supported which created the refugee crises in the first place.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna