A bold interrogation of the UK's Kafka-esque asylum system
‘The Claim’ is being staged in the Large Committee Room at Shoreditch Town Hall. Whether a deliberate move or not, it’s certainly appropriate: Tim Cowbury’s three-hander is about the UK’s labyrinthine asylum system. In a minimal set of modular staging and freestanding striplights, we meet Serge (Ncuti Gatwa), a young Congolese man who’s been living in Streatham for the past 18 months. He’s with two officials: A (Nick Blakely), a translator, and B (Yusra Warsama), a decision-maker. With A interlocuting, Serge tries to put forward a case for living permanently in Britain, and to not return to a homeland where he’ll almost certainly lose his life.
The whole play is delivered in English, but it’s a testament to all three actors that it’s obvious when they’re switching between English and French. Gatwa, in particular, does a fantastic job: fiercely articulate one minute, frantically stammering the next. If the good cop/bad cop dynamic between the two apparatchiks is a little oversimplified, it reveals two different sets of problematic attitudes towards asylum seekers. A is well-intentioned but naïve, too willing to paint Serge with the victim brush; B is patient but happy to use the rulebook as her moral compass. (Warsama shines here, with her by-numbers civility and hand gestures that look like they’ve been taught in a training session.)
As their exchanges grow increasingly incoherent, the sense of Serge being mindlessly lost to the whirring cogs of bureaucracy is heart-breaking. But, by its closing stages, ‘The Claim’ moves into more nuanced damnation. That direct address to the audience is used repeatedly throughout shouldn’t go unmentioned: are we the members of a committee, ready to decide a man’s fate? It makes us check our privilege in the best possible sense: to understand, through the prism of miscommunication, that the world is an overwhelmingly relative place – and a failure to appreciate that can have life-changing consequences. When Serge tells B she’s lucky to have a passport, it’s with zero irony and zero awareness she replies: ‘No. I’m British.’