Tricycle Theatre December 2009
A young man from Zimbabwe has entered Britain illegally and is being held in a detention centre while his sister and lawyer make the case for political asylum.
Bola Agbaje's new play at the Tricycle is perhaps a bit too aware that it is addressing a Big Topic, and has to fight off the stodgy feel of an illustrated research report. But at its best it does make the subject come alive, even managing the occasional touch of humour.
Agbaje works to keep this from being just another case study by fleshing out her characters in unexpected ways.
The big time lawyer is doing pro bono work to expiate his other professional sins, his client is not the pleasantest of human beings, and the immigration officer they have to get past is ironically a black man himself, though with a view of immigrants somewhat to the right of the Daily Mail.
With the central story almost unrelentingly dark, Agbaje puts it in a larger context with secondary characters who bring with them a lightness of touch and tone. The lawyer's aide is dedicated but a perky chatterbox, and we also meet a trio of illegal immigrants working as street cleaners and trying to keep from being noticed.
(Perhaps deliberately, Agbaje muddies the distinction between political refugees escaping danger in their home countries and those who enter Britain illegally for economic or other reasons.)
These characters bring a life and energy to their scenes that generates happy laughter even in the absence of actual jokes, and you are likely to find yourself looking forward to their digressions from the main story.
Karl Collins captures the driven quality of the lawyer and Ami Ameen the desperation that makes his client unable to hide his darker side.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster goes far toward making the somewhat cliched and predictable sister come alive, and Cecilia Noble, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Robert Whitelock are droll as the street sweepers.
Though Detaining Justice sometimes has the feel of the kind of play that comes with a teacher's guide to classroom discussion, the author, director Indhu Rubasingham and the cast keep the characters real and hold us through a fast-moving ninety minutes.
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Review - Detaining Justice - Tricycle Theatre 2009