Review: On Arriving, VAULT Festival

A stage may seem a very lonely space for a single actor to fill, but in On Arriving by Ivan Faute, it’s the characters we don’t see that flesh out this emotionally charged play.

On Arriving is a new one-woman play, the personal story of a young refugee (Sophia Eleni) who, by no fault of her own, is forced to flee a country falling apart before her eyes. Along the way we meet and leave behind loved ones; the aunt who can catch pieces of the sun, her husband the engineer full of vision, her dad with the bad leg and the memories of her mother.

Eleni breathes life into all these characters letting us care and grieve for them alongside her, yearning to return and find everything exactly where we left it. Her performance is painful, the energy of it reaching even the furthest corners of the room. Cat Robey’s direction is done with care and empathy, keeping the refugees story centre stage at all times.

Faute creates the semblance of a timeline, covering one memory with another as we are transported back and forth through the refugee’s perilous journey. Symbols and images are distributed throughout the play, a toy duck which loses its beak or a young girl tracing her finger along the seemingly endless roads of a map. Sometimes these details act as clues, showing us what is going to happen before the memories catch up, opening our emotions up to events which haven’t hit us yet.

Taking us out of the Vault Theatre’s hub of theatrical expression is Eleni’s sound design and Richard Owen’s lighting and video. Eleni’s soundscape frames the play’s non-linear structure chucking us into a disorienting whirlpool of panic before pulling us out into gentle reflection, the familiarity of mucking around with friends and navigating young love set to slow piano chords.

Owen takes full advantage of the theatre’s high vaulted ceiling. A wall of water seemingly surrounding the whole audience as the refugee shares the memory of her crossing the water in a boat too small to hold the crowd of people within it.

On Arriving is a poetic monologue, giving thought to the problems suffered by countless people still living in refugee camps all over the world, but not existing to demonise them. It is held up by the full force of Eleni’s acting and Faute’s clever weaving together of time and space. With so much happening every day to take up those precious 15 minutes of news in the evening, keeping yourself emotionally open to everything has become difficult. Once we stop seeing pictures and hearing stories, we are likely to push even a crisis to the back of our minds. On Arriving puts one refugee’s story right in front of us, in this piece about loss and leaving behind. 

On Arriving is playing the VAULT Festival until 9 February. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival website.