M J Harding and Jay Miller
There is a strange, dreamlike quality to the characters depicted in M J Harding and Jay Miller’s play Removal Men. It can feel at times as if we are seeing the story through the lens of someone on drugs. Everything is believable but only in the way sleep allows us to suspend the logic of our waking lives.
The characters work at one of the eleven immigration removal centre which, along with other holding facilities, detained some 32,400 migrants in 2015.
Conditions at these centres are harsh. People have little privacy, often sharing sleeping compartments with others among the constantly changing population. Although most are detained for less than two months, there are no legal restrictions on the amount of time they spend in these places and that adds to a sense of uncertainty.
Personal possessions are limited and the largest category of people in these centres consists of asylum seekers who have fled countries taking with them little in the way of resources. They can work at the centres cleaning and other manual tasks but, according to a 2014 BBC report, they are paid as little as a pound an hour.
In these conditions, it is no surprise if violence flares up and a key task of officers like the characters George (Barnaby Power) and Mo (Mark Field) is to keep a lid on the violence.
We first meet George and Mo when they are off-duty. Standing centre stage wearing only shorts and socks, they tell us they are at the second best sex club in Waltham Forest. Their male banter is naturalistic but always slightly odd.
Mo is distracted. He has fallen in love with Didi, a detainee who may at any time be deported to the Lebanon, and that worries him.
George is agitated and constantly talking. He is disenchanted with his job and the violence it involves. At work, he copes by talking about developing a compassionate approach to the detainees, and by joining a "Compassionate Officer Programme".
Outside work, he deals with the violence and the authority relations he dislikes through a sexualisation of violence and domination in pornography and sex clubs. It leads him to wear in work a "bum plug" that can be remotely vibrated. This will cause him some awkward moments.
Most of the show takes place on the day Didi is to be deported. Trying to delay her forced removal, she cuts herself and in being given medical treatment is discovered to be pregnant. This doesn’t stop the deportation but it does reveal to the centre manager Beatrice (Clare Perkins) that Mo is the father.
However, Beatrice is too concerned with getting more funding for the centre to do anything about her officer.
The actors give strong, believable performances. The dialogue is often funny, is interspersed with songs and at times takes on a chant-like quality that is underscored by the rhythms of a hypnotic soundscape.
The sometimes surreal choreography adds to that sense of the play being a rather distorted dream.
This is a fine, imaginative production of an unsettling show.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna