Things That Divide Us
New drama remains a casualty of the pandemic. This is particularly the case in the regions where most producing theatres have not reopened, or now rarely use, their studio spaces, thereby limiting opportunities to stage intimate, small-scale productions. 53two, typically, bucks the trend, launching a new studio facility with Joshua Chandos’s Things That Divide Us.
In a Calais refugee camp, Kitty (Beth Lily-Banks) and David (Callum Sim) are both volunteer workers but have little in common. Kitty is an experienced veteran while David is not only new, he is a solo worker, not a member of a recognised organisation. Social divisions also apply with Kitty teasing David about his educational achievements. Perhaps experience in working with the refugees will help the duo learn there is more that unites than divides them.
Author Joshua Chandos is determined to avoid any clichés or melodrama. The characters do not take contrary political positions—both believe in what they are doing—so the play involves watching two people agree with each other. Chandos builds his arguments by offering several examples of the inhumane conditions in the camps. The play does not, therefore, move towards a single focal point or crisis but is rather a series of low-key incidents which tends to limit the drama—there is very little tension in the play.
The social class divide and antagonism between the characters is not very convincing. David is hardly Oxbridge and Kitty far from ignorant, so her resenting his educational achievements does not really work. It is clear working in the camp gives both characters a sense of purpose, but the impact is muted. David’s backstory suggests anxiety had an adverse impact upon his life, but the effect is limited. He was not, say, suicidal but simply could not finish his education and found his job unrewarding. The idea his experience at the camp helped him resolve his issues is inspiring but hardly cathartic.
Chandos’s priority is to educate the audience on conditions in the refugee camps and humanise the refugees so as to offset the negative impression often conveyed in the media. Director Simon Naylor supports this approach with a rolling series of excerpts from news reports and podcasts broadcast on television screens.
The approach works best when filtered through the personalities of the characters. The brutally honest Kitty does not regard her role as working towards a solution, just stopping an awful situation from getting worse. Inevitably, the play becomes heavy with factual descriptions of inhumane conditions and police brutality. Many of the details are powerful and add to the sense of desperation—to avoid attracting attention, refugees will not accept offers of brightly coloured clothing—but there are so many examples, they have a numbing effect of overloading outrage. There is a degree of repetition with a variation on Kitty’s inspirational speech to the volunteers occurring three times.
Beth Lily-Banks and Callum Sim bring warmth to the characters. Lily-Banks has an air of permanent overworked distraction and the spiky personality of someone willing to protest purely on principle. Sim suggests David’s idealistic, overeager approach is, to a degree, concealing a shy personality of someone who really does not want to talk about his past. The growing respect / affection between the pair is convincingly realised and resolved in a bittersweet manner.
Things That Divide Us is a passionate attempt to highlight ground-level aspects of the refugee crisis which are not always publicised and demonstrate we have more in common with the refugees than is normally supposed. The non-sensational approach, however, limits the emotional impact of the play.
Reviewer: David Cunningham