“There need to be rules, and order and boundaries, or what?” Common sense, surely? Civilised society needs immigration controls, rules to decide who can be a citizen, and punishments for breaking the law. But are boundaries also useful for putting limits around our compassion, making it OK for everyone to look the other way?
Upstairs at the Royal Court, Rachel De-lahay’s new play Routes shows us the side of global London that we would rather not think about. Its characters are desperate to get into Britain, not as a soft option but because the alternative is far worse; or for the same reasons they are desperate to stay. De-lahay, with a growing reputation as a London chronicler after The Westbridge and Peckham: The Soap Opera, has written a play that exposes the fragility bubble we all inhabit, except for those unlucky enough to fall outside its protective boundaries.
In a half-way house, hostility between Kola (Calvin Demba) and Bashir (Fiston Barek), both just out of jail, becomes touching friendship. Meanwhile in Lagos, Olufemi (Peter Bankolé) pays Abiola (Seun Shote) never-ending ‘buffers’ to buy an illegal passport. Bashir, Somali by birth, has always lived in Britain but ends up in limbo when he turns out to have no citizenship. Sent to Colnbrook Removal Centre, in the Heathrow warehouse belt, he is still technically in London (“Zone 6. And then a bus. Then a short walk.”), but trapped in nowhere land.
De-lahay tackles tough subject matter with a sure touch and a great deal of humour (“If your lawyer has a ponytail, you know you are going to prison”). There are flaws – Abiola’s change of heart about helping people leave hints at a future when Nigerians could reject the grim realities of illegal immigration, but is dramatically unconvincing. However, the drama is gripping and economical and the dialogue packed with South London slang.
Routes features compelling performances, particularly from Calvin Demba on his professional stage debut, menacing one moment, funny and charming the next, and Fiston Barek as the increasingly frantic Bashir. It also employs drama just as it should be used in the Royal Court tradition, to strip away cosy political assumptions. De-lahay shows the miserable consequences of the headline-grabbing immigration crackdowns and mass removals indulged in by all governments over the past decade. Routes lifts the lid on 21st century London, and reminds us that all the best theatre is political.
Routes is at the Royal Court Upstairs, Sloane Square, London SW1 until 12 October. Tickets £10-£20, to book visit the Royal Court website. Production shot by Johan Persson.