1/2 Stars

★★ Detention Sentence

Simon Ward reviews How To Break Out Of A Detention Centre at the Riverside Studios

This is the world premiere of a piece whose themes and message arguably transcend the world of theatre and render any review meaningless. Performed in many languages by performers passionately and deeply engaged with the issues (Lizzie Clarke, Mihaela Drăgan, Zita Moldovan, Alaa Taha), the play is written by Sînziana Cojocărescu based on the testimonies of women affected, women held in British detention centres, whose stories are almost never told. It is unbearably harrowing to see the prison-like conditions they endure and the baffling, infuriating, labyrinthine bureaucracy to be navigated in a foreign language with insufficient translators. The apparently found recordings of people describing the detained women as caged animals is disturbingly believable. It calls out our own complicity as an audience, Too often we are passive and indifferent to this suffering which goes unnoticed. After all, we witness terrible things on the streets of London every day and do nothing. There is no shying away from the issue of white middle class guilt, and even the fetishizing of these women’s distress in the name of art. There is some leavening humour as well, as when the detainees manage to communicate with each other, in spite of the lack of a common language, using a shared enthusiasm for TikTok videos. Overall, it is an uncomfortable and unsettling evening, but not always for the right reasons.

Photo credit – Héctor Manchego

If passionate conviction and intensity were enough, this review could end here. Unfortunately, however, the piece fails to cohere as drama. There are many striking images and ideas, and, indeed, a few moments where the work suggests it might take flight, but it never quite does. It does not transcend its component parts to become a satisfying whole.

As it is, there are too many disparate elements which do not quite come together. There are microphones at two corners of the stage, powerfully used in one scene to represent a beating heart and there is a large projected backdrop. This serves multiple purposes. When used for subtitles for the non-English dialogue it is essential but sometimes difficult to follow if one wants to see actor and translation at the same time. Quite effectively it is also used to display someone producing a child-like drawing of a house and family – at first idealised and pretty, but eventually, as the play progresses, consumed by angry flames, representing, perhaps, the dreams of home which these women have lost, or have left behind. The purpose of the severely bloodied young man’s head which appears intermittently is less obvious. It feels like a somewhat generic image of violence, and it is unclear how it relates to the rest of the piece.

Finally the backdrop is also used for footage filmed by the characters themselves, sometimes apparently representing CCTV, sometimes mobile phone or the aforementioned TikTok-style videos. Sadly, this equipment failed halfway through the performance I saw. On the whole I think that the same effects could have been achieved without this extra element, particularly in light of the risk of malfunction.

Photo credit – Héctor Manchego

The conclusion of the play is also rather confused – it appears that the detainees may engineer some sort of fire, perhaps one of them escapes, only to be subjected to similar interrogation and mistrust in the outside world.

There is enough material here and a strong enough cast to make a truly memorable and compelling play. I hope that they will continue to work on it as it is a story that needs to be told.

How To Break Out Of A Detention Centre runs at Riverside Studios, 101 Queen Caroline Street, London W6 9BN until 8th March.

Categories: 1/2 Stars, review

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