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This startlingly original debut from MJ Harding is a play-with-songs about the British immigration system
‘It’s a fucked up hierarchy, and at the top of it is a group of traumatised boys’.
Detention officer George is talking about the whole global political system, but he might as well be describing the women’s detention centre where he works. MJ Harding’s feverishly powerful play with songs strips off the suits of the men responsible for imposing Britain’s immigration system – and shows us the shivering playground misfits underneath.
Their boss Beatrice (Clare Perkins) has sent the centre’s staff on workplace compassion training – but lifting the lid on their feelings has sent them all mad. George (Barnaby Power) has become addicted to Tuesdays at Walthamstow’s second-best hostelry for sexual deviants, Club Lick, where a dominatrix has persuaded him to wear a butt plug to work. Meanwhile his fellow officer Mo (Mark Field) is obsessed with Didi, a detainee – and the news that she’s due to leave the centre tips him into a deep funk. But however low they both sink, Beatrice can’t fire them – oddly, their jobs aren’t exactly oversubscribed.
It might sound a bit tasteless to make a warped comedy about an immigration centre that ruins lives. This play really isn’t. Harding’s dialogue is both utterly loopy and entirely convincing, scraping away at these characters’ skins with the surreal energy of Irish playwright Enda Walsh. And Jay Miller’s mesmerically intense production uses music to carve out a space for huge ideas, showing how compassion becomes twisted in a warped system.
Naturalistic scenes break open into hellish diptychs, where the three officers break into convulsing, animalistic dances choreographed by Project O. Harding and Jonah Brody’s songs have the weird trance-like energy of the jingles that kids croon to themselves – half-remembered TV themes or reassuring mantras, sung off-key. Together with Joshua Pharo’s rock concert-bright lighting design, they shift us from the poignantly detailed reality of Bethany Wells’s set – all municipal carpet and posters of Jose Mourinho – into a wild unregulated shadowland, where Freudian desires overcome small men and turn them into careering cannonballs of sexual obsession.
It’s a hugely impressive debut from Harding. But even better, it signposts the way to the power of music in theatre to be something a bit transcendental – to make a ritualistic space where the rules break down, and wild things play.