With this year’s easing of restrictions on Romanians working in the UK, one might think their hardships are over when it comes to settling here. But British-based writer Carla Grauls tackles Romanian immigration from a different point of view in Occupied at Battersea’s Theatre 503, suggesting many are still without proper housing and jobs.
The story unfolds in a disused public toilet, where Alex (Mark Conway) and Andreya (Josie Dunn) attempt to frugally co-habitate with an elderly ‘gypsy’ woman. In a drastic measure to fully immerse themselves with British customs, the couple kidnap Tom (Joe Marsh), a typical English bloke who considers football and hanging out at the pub with mates a lifestyle staple.
Naturally, Tom is less than thrilled with the predicament, with nights leading to forced belligerence, and sometimes violence, thanks to Alex’s over-indulgence with the Romanian traditional spirit tuică. But he soon gains a soft spot for Andreya who regularly leaves for several hours, returning with a handful of cash she forcibly hands over to Alex.
As the days pass, the three inevitably learn about their differing cultures in one form (or another). While their complex dynamic is extreme, cultural barriers are something many Londoners experience at some point. Grauls raises the question: can British nationals and mixed ethnicities intermix without some basis of stereotyping?
It’s a tough subject, yet Nick Darke Award winner Grauls holds her own with an honest script that has both dark and comedic moments. Anna Mors, who recently won the Kevin Spacey Award for Emerging Artists, directs a mostly engaging two and a half hours, but there are moments that feel repetitive and trite. Did there need to be a ‘gypsy’ that rants about stage, frequently crossing to the crucifix? Does Alex need to continuously ask Tom ‘Jones’ why he isn’t like the Romanians?
All performances must be commended however, particularly as not one of the cast members is Romanian. Sure, there are some cultural faux pas such as the gypsy woman crossing herself the incorrect way, and their dialects sounding less than authentic (this noted by a Romanian audience member). Yet when the production concludes with its heart-rending finish — most of this can be forgotten — and instead their sad existences make the lingering impression.
Occupied is at Theatre 503 until 26 April. Showtimes are Monday through Saturday at 7.45pm and Sundays at 5pm. Tickets are £15, with £10 concessions. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.