Review: Potent, Knowing Theatre To Remind Us of Our Humanity

In a week that’s seen post-Brexit malaise only deepened by the ever-increasing ugliness of our tabloid press, Phone Home at Shoreditch Town Hall offered up the perfect tonic. A production devised by three companies from across Europe, Upstart Theatre (Britain), Pathos München (Germany), and Sforaris Theatre Company (Athens), have created an example of what can be achieved through European collaboration - it’s even co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union, something we will surely miss.

These three companies have sought to construct a performance upon the theme of home, and what it means to leave it. Inevitably, this brought them into the realm of the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time - the Syrian Civil War, which has seen swathes of innocents displaced and forced to seek refuge in Europe. Devised in workshops with refugee groups, it tells their story in an innovative way, as the collaboration between these three companies extends beyond planning and into performance. Each night the show will be performed simultaneously across Europe and broadcast to each theatre with actors interacting via video link.

Phone Home takes the form of a series of vignettes, touching on notions of home and communication, some rely upon interplay between the three companies, others are self-contained. It produces a variety of scenes and styles which keeps the performance fresh through its ninety minutes running time, with humorous skewering of Brexit and an increasingly insular Britain playing out alongside more serious issues.

Phone Home is also under no illusion to its own potency

There is an impressive psychological robustness to the show. It would be very easy to fall back upon cliches of designed to elicit a cheap emotional response, rendering the experience saccharine and naive. Instead, we hear the stories of not just the child refugees our press reviles, but of those fpr whom you would not expect to find sympathy, deportation officers trying to contextualise their own actions, or people smugglers and their motivations. It can be difficult to see the humanity behind refugees: despite the best intentions, we see figures to pity, not people with lives of their own, so Phone Home should be praised for reminding us the people we see on the News at Ten are more than just evacuees.

Phone Home is also under no illusion to its own potency. These performers are self-aware enough to chide themselves for believing a play can change the world and confident enough to gently mock an audience looking for absolution in attending. A framing device in the form of a pan-European charity gala broadcast from London, Athens, and Munich, provides a comical and knowing critique of the sort of charity appeals which end up more of a publicity shoot than a force for change, taking a swipe at our ability to feel we’ve done our part by tweeting a hashtag from our armchairs, or sharing a video of a celebrity in a lifejacket.

The success of the show is heavily reliant upon the mercy of not just the theatre gods, but technology too, which can never truly be trusted. A smooth run relies upon a seamless connection between theatres and video links, with the actors having to be sure of their own timing too. It is perhaps fitting that a show about the difficulty of communications across borders suffered from just that.

For the first third of the performance, a lack of a proper video link meant the audience in Shoreditch Town Hall could hear performers in Munich and Athens but not see them. In spite of this, it has to be said that Ramzi DeHani, Simon Carroll-Jones, Nadi Kemp-Safyi, and Rochi Rampal, the performers in our own part of the world adapted in a brilliantly composed manner, showing that perhaps the old ways will always be the best.

Having said that, when normal service was resumed the interplay between companies worked well and there was certainly enough to suggest that it’s is worth the risk of a few technical problems. This level of collaboration across Europe is impressive in the planning stages, but to see such a novel approach to theatre across borders really ought to be applauded.

Phone Home is on at Shoreditch Town Hall, from 21st to 31st October.

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