If there was an award for ‘Most Misleading Title of the Fringe’, Juana in a Million would have to be a contender. Initially put off by the pun, I only realised this was a must-see play upon discovering that it had been directed by Nir Paldi, artistic director of Theatre Ad Infinitum, the company responsible for the wonderful Translunar Paradise – which is itself, incidentally, back for a second run at the Pleasance this year. What is more, Juana in a Million has garnered a lot of recent acclaim and a Fringe First award to boot.
It is a powerful one-woman show, written by and starring Vicky Araico Casas, who turns in a remarkable performance as Juana, a Mexican immigrant attempting to make herself a new life in the UK. The piece was created with the help of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, a London-based charity set up to help disenfranchised women just like Juana, and the entire play is based on a combination of Casas’s own experiences and those of women who have been helped by LAWRS. As a character, then, Juana is an amalgam of several real people’s experiences, but there are real women just like her all over the country.
Having grown up working for a family restaurant, whose business is now severely compromised by local criminals’ demands for higher and higher amounts of protection money, Juana’s home is so torn apart by crime and gang-warfare that she feels trapped. To her mother’s dismay, she can see no other option but to flee to London and attempt to begin a new life. Arriving with no work-permit and only a suitcase full of clothes, Juana moves into a single room shared by seven other immigrants who all ‘hotbed’; half work nights, half days, and they share four beds.
With no rights, no experience and unable even to speak the language, Juana tries desperately to earn herself the future she knows she deserves; she dreams of learning English, going to University and becoming ‘a professional’. Inevitably, she is mistreated and discriminated against over and over again, and as her options slip away, there seems only one bleak option left to her.
Casas is full of energy and humour as Juana, showing us her incredible strength of character in the face of every new mishap, though some of the physical theatre – particularly when portraying her mother – does feel a little contrived. Other elements work very well, though, and the music by Adam Pleeth, the only other performer on stage, adds real atmosphere. When it is used in combination with Casas’s repeated motions to show the boring, horribly repetitive nature of her jobs, the play is at its strongest.
Juana in a Million is not a perfect piece of theatre, but it is interesting, at times sad, at times funny and very, very beautifully performed.
**** – 4/5 stars
Juana in a Million is playing at Pleasance Dome as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 26 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.