‘The Special Relationship’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
The Special Relationship, Soho Theatre
Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Interesting if not always incisive look at the lives of six Brits deported from the US

When we think about deportation in the era of Trump and the hostile environment, certain stereotypes might come to mind. But when Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak (‘Love, Bombs and Apples’) began to speak to people in London who’d been deported from the States, he found ‘every interview was a surprise’. He decided you really couldn’t make it up – and put six of their stories on stage, verbatim.

These are British citizens who lived most of their lives in the US but never got round to the paperwork – and then got busted for making meth, running drugs, or committing fraud. But few of them fit an obvious criminal template, and the things that got them deported were often smaller, almost silly, infractions: not having a valid driver’s licence or being bang-on the alcohol limit, met with a pissy cop or just bad luck.

Throughout the show, a sense of frustration and stress builds at the boggling and often unfair bureaucracy they face when dealing with the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), not to mention, in later sections, stark accounts of the often terrible conditions in detention centres. Stories of cramped filthy spaces, a lack of medical care – even for cancer patients or those on vital medication – and a heartless separating of parents from children all pile up. One character points out that in prison they at least had contact visitations with their kids; when they were deported, they had to leave without being allowed to hug their children goodbye.

Abdulrazzak’s text braids its different strands together smoothly. He often teases a line or detail that acquires sadder, heavier weight when we hear more of the character’s story. But a fierce, funny ensemble cast ensure that the evening isn’t too grim: there’s plenty of black humour amid the horror stories.

That’s partly served up by a jesting ICE officer, who maintains that the law must be obeyed, and takes a provokingly jaunty approach to scolding the deportees. He breaks into bitterly ironic upbeat dance moves to cheesy pop numbers like ‘Ice Ice Baby’. Abdulrazzak also includes the special relationship between Trump and first Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, with more dancing, to everything from ‘Shake It Off’ to ‘Send in the Clowns’. Duncan Wisbey’s impressions raise laughs, but this satire doesn’t feel as sharp and pointed as it could be.

Esther Baker’s direction could be snappier or bolder: the show would probably have benefitted from taking a cut and losing the interval to keep up the relentlessness. While the cast whizz around speedily on wheelie chairs, some group movement feels a wee bit woolly. But ‘The Special Relationship’ succeeds in its aim to shed light on the individual stories behind a political topic – one that may become a key part of the US election battleground.

By: Holly Williams

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