It’s a minefield. Former child soldiers ineligible for refugee status because they’ve been active participants in war. Supporters of barbarous regimes securing sanctuary even as their tyrannical governments are overthrown. And, as we see in Chris MacDonald’s resonant debut at the Southwark Playhouse, members of the gay community denied asylum unless they can provide photographic evidence of their homosexuality. Of all the modern world’s many bureaucratic gauntlets, few are more compelling or complex than immigration.
Set in a detention centre, Eye of a Needle revolves around Laurence, a young caseworker who’d rather be "fancying it big time" on the lash with his mates than dealing with the UK’s 500,000 asylum applicants. Least of his problems are fraudulent applicants protesting their sexuality with colourful re-enactments of the rusty trombone and the angry pirate. His boss Ted, at once curmudgeonly and avuncular, is trying to make a protégé of Laurence with chummy bribes of cheese sandwiches and cubicle ruminations on his penis. The applicants’ legal rep Caroline is strident, suspicious, and more distressed by the cost of her new flat in Hounslow than her clients being beaten in their rooms. Now a hungover Laurence has been given the case of Natale – a gay rights activist who has spoken out over the brutal murder of a friend and been threatened with a jerican of acid at her Kampala office. But is she all she seems?
For all the perky humour springing from culture clash, this is a depressing play. Necessarily so, by virtue of the questions it addresses. Director Holly Race-Roughan hits the heart, hard, again and again with a relentless thump. Fly Davis’ set design complements the angst with bolted seating, a procession of sad, battered phones and a mildewing wall that acts as both urinal and shabby water cooler corridor. Rhys Lewis’ sound design offsets the drudgery of the office with sunny, Balearic tunes, stomped to by Katie Payne’s movement direction – at first fluid and effective, then as perfunctory as the paperwork itself.
It is a difficult play in many ways. In the first half the office staff are presented with an almost irksome vilification. Ted is repugnantly coarse in his approach. Solicitor Caroline seems, for all her sweary bravura, uninterested in her clients beyond scrawling her email address on their files. The research MacDonald displays is extensive, but if these characters truthfully reflect the behaviour of immigration staff then the system is opprobrious. If not there’s a whiff of sensationalism at play.
Yet thanks in particular to a fantastically blazing row between Nic Jackman’s foppish Laurence and Stephen Hudson’s unfurling Ted, we gain a firmer grasp on the seesaw of the issue. Gradually the plot reveals the Sisyphean effort involved in gauging applicants. This comes to a head with the troubling, incisive idea that if all the brave and right-minded people seek asylum, who will be left to fight the repressive regimes from the inside?
Consummate performances reinforce the youth of the script. Ekow Quartey invests each of his characters – foremost the forlorn Jamaican, Harrison – with desperate appeal. Ony Uhiara presents a regal, razor-sharp Natale, ferocious intellect gilded by a quicksilver smile. It is a pity we do not see, as Laurence does, the video of her hijacking her murdered friend’s funeral – if only to see her taking on opponents more worthy than immigration officials.
A question reverberates at the play’s end, as Beenie Man’s homophobic lyrics creep through the theatre: what can theatre offer that a thorough piece of investigative journalism cannot? It is difficult to indulge in the fantasy of the drama when this issue is so present, so pressing. We are left craving solutions, and the play’s lack of a nod towards them – or of explicit hope – niggles. Yet for all this it is a highly promising first play, sensitive and timely. MacDonald is a playwright worth rallying behind – here’s hoping he’ll lead many more charges like this.