Karen Houge’s Undercover Refugee is a telling of her journey through Europe following a group of Syrian Refugees. Her intention is clear; to cast a new and humanising light on a group of people who are continually dehumanised and demonised by the media at large.
Although Houge is clearly well intentioned, her play often falls into telling a self-indulgent story that focuses more on the problems encountered by her as a protagonist, than on providing any depth or voice to the refugees themselves. The attempts at satire fall short in providing the nuance the genre requires. Instead, the show relies on slapstick and bawdy humour which generally falls flat.
Houge’s partner David Tann joins her on stage to play the role of the people she meets on her journey. His character is intentionally bumbling and quirky, but his joking is often uncomfortable. The pair borrow accents and mannerisms from the audience and use them to characterise the people who Houge has met on her journey. This is nonsensical at best, but offensive at worst. It seems inappropriate to erase the already silenced voice of refugees further by avoiding the reality of their personality or background.
The play lacks polish or refinement. Some jokes could have been successful, but the seemingly random delivery mean they feel thoughtless and thrown together.
However, there are moments of interest. An effective use of light and puppetry creates an intimidating judge who towers over Houge in a courtroom scene, making for a scene with a potential for intrigue.
The most effective and intriguing part of the show comes at the close, when both actors step out of the story to deliver the truth of the refugee’s experiences. This is a moment in which Houge achieves her aim of bringing to life the complexity of the lives of Syrian refugees. This honest telling of their reality should have been the in foreground of the show, instead of being used as a backdrop for a satire that fails to add anything new to an important conversation.
To pull off satire about a subject as sensitive as the refugee crisis requires nuance which is often evident in the writing, acting or directing.
Though the show is based on a promising premise, it requires much development and rehearsal before it can make its good intentions a reality.
Undercover Refugee is playing at theSpace on the Mile as part of the Edinburgh Fringe until August 26.