Event review: The Asylum Monologues at Theatre Utopia

By - Tuesday 6th June, 2017

Croydon’s asylum seekers, in their own words

The Calais ‘jungle’.
Photo by BSCar23635, used under Creative Commons licence.

On the day after the Manchester bombing, it was good that the Croydon Amnesty Group decided not to cancel its showing of The Asylum Monologues at Theatre Utopia, Matthews Yard , because it was honest, simple story-telling: story-telling of the sort that recalls you to your sense of humanity, develops your empathy, calmly informs your mind and reduces the temptation to generalise and demonise.

Ice and Fire theatre group explores first-hand accounts of the UK’s asylum system in the words of those who have experienced it. Everything about the performance was understated: the staging was minimalist, with three actors just sitting reading from black folders. No histrionics, no manipulation, nothing shouty… just true stories. Of course, the stories were crafted: each monologue paused just as you had got drawn into its world, and the narrative thread was left hanging until it was that story’s turn again… but with just three monologues, it was easy to keep hold of those diverse threads.

Sayeed was a resourceful Syrian entrepreneur who bought his future wife fifty-three red roses when they had known each other fifty-three days. Not being particularly political, he had assumed that President Assad was good news back in 2011, but ended up spending ninety days incarcerated in a windowless room by a ruthless former business associate, telling the passing of time from the TV theme tunes he overheard. When sleeping in a church doorway in France, he started a pop-up kitchen and as well as cooking for his countrymen, regularly took food and understanding to the angry local French residents who were shouting racist insults. He connected with them meaningfully and actually: “we are still friends”.

How can she prove her sexuality? Should she invite Home Office officials into her bed?

The female voice was a young Ugandan sportswoman, ranked badminton number four for the whole of Africa. Her sexuality had accidentally made her a target for mob violence, the mob summoned by the shocked screams of a neighbour who wandered in through the unlocked front door. She helped her partner out of the back window then fled, sprinting from the front door of the house (“my legs are strong”, she said) then hiding in a bush before booking a ticket to wherever she had a valid visa, which happened to be Glasgow where she had just been competing. With no plan and no UK contacts, she found herself homeless for three months, sleeping in parks around Turnpike Lane and seeking out Ugandan churches where she could overhear conversations in her own language, which calmed her.

A galling frustration lay in being repeatedly refused sanctuary here on the basis that she couldn’t provide ‘civic proof’ of her relationship and of “who I am”. And what exactly would that look like in a country where homosexuality is illegal? Friends’ testimonies and social media photos were not enough. Should she invite the Home Office officials into her bed? She has now been refused asylum here twice.

Not victims, not heroes, not figureheads – just engaging individuals

The third actor played Rob Lawrie, that British man who was in the news last January for trying to smuggle a four year old girl in his van from the Calais jungle to safety with her relatives in Leeds. Not wanting to work in a factory, his choices when he left the care system as a sixteen year old had been the army, the navy or the RAF, so he had flipped a coin. Galvanised into action by the photos of Alan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy pictured drowned on the beach, he hired a truck, posted on Facebook and received £25,000 in donations to take to Calais within twenty-four hours.

There he got some Sudanese men building shelters he’d sketched out a design for and became known as Mister Rob. There were many regrets; his bipolar disorder, his suicide attempt, his failed marriages and limited access to his children were a bleak backdrop, but he, like the others, was essentially likeable and the audience collectively heaved a sigh of relief when he escaped a lengthy prison term in France. These people weren’t victims or heroes or figureheads; they were just engaging individuals.

To be more than a hand-wringing leftie, one must act somehow

Unexpectedly, there were many moments of humour, notably Sayeed impersonating an impatient British business man when he was kept waiting with his first class ticket on Eurostar. I wondered if the authentic present tense grammar slips in the monologue would seem patronising but they were actually very poignant. However, the real miracle wasn’t the acting or the stories or the telling – powerful though they all were – but how the Ice and Fire team had managed to gather these testimonies and share them in a way that maintained dignity.

I talk with recently arrived asylum seekers every week and most have a great need for privacy. This, combined with limited language knowledge, mean that stories will often emerge piecemeal and gradually over many months in the context of an on-going trusting relationship. Yet we were privileged to hear three complete testimonies in an hour, all with full permission and blessing.

The problem is how to respond. If it’s not just to be feel-good-about-your-politics hand-wringing leftie entertainment, there’s a challenge to act somehow. Which is why it made sense for Peter Hall from Croydon Refugee Daycentre to host the post-performance Q and A session. The gist of which was, by the way, that if you want to help by donating locally, they always, always need prams and buggies!

Rosie Edser

Rosie Edser

Rosie is a member of the team at Croydon Refugee Daycentre. She's a teacher of both adult English learners and (in her day job) children. She relishes the fact that her own offspring have attended a school in Croydon with over forty first languages spoken. She lives in Waddon.

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