Echoes of Kafka’s The Trial resonate clearly in Tim Cowbury’s The Claim at Roundabout, Summerhall. Serge appears before us, having fled to The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is speaking to an apparently affable immigration offer, named “A”, about his situation. As in The Trial, Serge is caught in a ridiculously bureaucratic trap. Escape seems as futile as the languages the characters use to communicate with each other.
Serge, played with remarkable deftness and control by Ery Nzaramba, is trying to tell us his story. He says that, just before his father was killed, he was reading Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. This is about as much information as we get. He is continuously interrupted by A (Nick Blakeley), who, despite the fact that the two men share a common language, misinterprets him at every turn. Willy Wonka becomes Willy Fog, launching A into reminiscences of Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. When he suggests that Serge must have elephants, Serge thinks he is talking about London Zoo. When asked about “home” Serge, understandably, refers to Streatham rather than to the DRC.
A, who throughout the play presents himself as a friend and something of an ally to Serge, develops full blown verbal diarrhoea as the action escalates. We learn a lot more about internal office politics, his feelings towards his co-worker and his holiday ambitions to Ios, than we do about Serge. Events take a cooler turn when a second immigration officer, “B” (Emmanuella Cole), becomes more overtly sceptical about his claims for asylum. She only speaks English, allowing further linguistic confusion, and A’s ridiculous translations, to spiral out of control. These misunderstandings, more comical in the opening scenes, become more serious and, in a case where the word “gum” is mistaken for the word “gun”, ultimately more tragic. These miscommunications, and both A’s and B’s inability or refusal to listen, mean Serge is left in a much worse position than he was at the beginning of the interview, with an alleged claim of parricide hanging over his head.
This is smart, sensitive writing from Cowbury. The dialogue is funny and rapid. Although two languages are in play, the piece is performed entirely in English. This simple conceit serves to underline the fundamental futility of language and also the inherent impossibility of Serge’s situation. The focus of this play seems not so much on Serge’s individual story (by the end you’d be forgiven for being unable to piece it together) but on our own inability to understand those who have come to the UK in desperate need.
What’s exceptional about The Claim is that Cowbury takes an extremely serious theme and creates an enjoyable, rigorously constructed and elegant piece of theatre. It trips along apace, directed by Mark Maughan who elicits excellent performances from the entire cast. Many of the miscommunications are genuinely funny and the show defiantly packs a punch. It is reassuring to observe that this production gives appropriate care and attention to researching the refugee experience in the UK. The creative team spent two years developing and researching the piece, including time spent in immigration courts, working closely with refugees and associated agencies. This is urgent, relevant new work and well worth 65 minutes of your Edinburgh Fringe.
The Claim is playing the Roundabout @ Summerhall until 25 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.