The Uninvited - Songs and Stories of Exile
Devised by Elizabeth Mansfield and Steve Trafford
Ensemble at The Studio, York Theatre Royal
Kicking foreigners when they're down - not a pleasant task, but one the Daily Mail and its downmarket rivals have always performed with crusading zeal. "The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage!" shrieked the Mail in 1938, setting the tone for the present hate campaign against refugees and asylum seekers. The Uninvited is a timely reminder of the tragic, horrific and sometimes grimly comic stories behind the statistics.
Ensemble was founded five years ago by actress/singer Elizabeth Mansfield and writer Steve Trafford with the aim of exploring the relationship between music and text; The Uninvited is a mixture of poems, songs, eyewitness accounts and excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It could have been one of those worthy but dry evenings so often associated with political theatre, but Elizabeth Mansfield's subtle handling of the often harrowing texts - not to mention her glorious singing voice - held the audience spellbound from beginning to end.
Mansfield and Trafford have drawn their material from a wide range of sources, ranging in time and space from a 19th century Irish ballad about ill-fated emigrants to an account of life in a prison-like English "reception centre". A Rwandan refugee relates how her mother, raped and impregnated by soldiers at the age of 14, escaped to the relative safety of Uganda only to be shot dead by robbers. Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, refugee from Stalinist Russia and the subject of Trafford's recent play A Cloud in Trousers, marvels at the Brooklyn Bridge and, in a city crammed with immigrants, wonders where the Americans are. A woman is haunted by memories of her father picking up his skullcap from the mud where Nazi thugs have thrown it, and compares his life-saving servility to the behaviour of her uncle, who made a wild attempt to fight back and was promptly murdered. On a lighter note, a Russian boy who emigrates to California in 1985 assumes that the Weekly World News, with its stories of mummified alien babies, is a serious newspaper ("censorship must have been even more insidious than we thought... ")
Of the 25 items that make up the programme only one strikes a false note. Paul Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Waters seems weirdly out of place and, in view of Simon's South African sanctions-busting activities, downright inappropriate. But otherwise the material has been carefully chosen to inform and entertain, a merciful relief from the old agitprop technique of overwhelming the audience with a litany of human misery.
One hopes that this beautifully-performed and moving production will not spend the rest of its extensive tour preaching to the converted; with a running time of only 70 minutes, followed at most venues by a question and answer session with representatives of refugee welfare associations, The Uninvited should appeal particularly to schools and youth groups. Teachers and youth leaders, take note!
Touring to Sheffield, Washington, Windsor, Leicester, Bury St Edmunds, Epsom, Deal, Basingstoke, Redbridge, Oxford, Cheltenham, Halesworth, Chipping Norton and Trowbridge
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson