BWW Reviews: EYE OF A NEEDLE, Southwark Playhouse, August 29 2014
When newspapers report that the government has missed its net migration target, politicians wring their hands and hardnosed journalists demand that "something must be done". But what does all that rhetoric mean for those trapped inside the immigration system? Chris Macdonald's Eye of a Needle (continuing at Southwark Playhouse until 20 September) puts a human face on the work of the UK Border Agency - that's human, not humane.
Laurence (Nic Jackman) has been assessing the credibility of asylum seekers for a year or so and, unlike his supervisor Ted (Stephen Hudson), he still believes there is more to the job than a cynical show of bureaucractic rectitude before an inevitable dispatch back to... what exactly? Well, the stakes for gay men and women in countries like Jamaica and Uganda could not be higher. But while a chancer or two might be a source of wry amusement for Laurence, when Natale (Ony Uhiara), a special case due to her political activism in Africa, arrives at the Detention Centre his idealism and Ted's cynicism are stretched to the limit.
Rooted in accounts of individuals caught up on both sides of Detention Centre's holding rooms (because, as Laurence says before quickly correcting himself, the asylum seeker is "on trial" in an informal but nevertheless real sense), the play is a bitterly dark comedy with echoes of Kafka and The Office spiced with more than a touch of Dario Fo's anger. Fly Davis's set, with its bolted down orange plastic chairs, its ultra-harsh strip lighting and endless sheets of unstapled paper reeks of a system that has been pushed out of sight and out of mind - until those targets have to be met. This play gives voice to the men and women who sit, hour after hour, on those chairs, under those lights, "protecting Britain".
Ony Uhiara, blazing with indignation, gets the best lines, some of which hit you right between the eyes - hers is a powerful but nuanced performance, full of the charisma that such a character requires. Nic Jackman also captures a caseworker at the precise point at which the compromise with the system must be made, tilting one way and then the other. Support from Laura Cairns as the starstruck lawyer who is doing her best and Ekow Quartey playing three applicants, the first of which is a very funny turn, adds layers of credibility to the scenes.
But credibility is not the issue for the play - clearly the system is unfit for purpose and the black comedy is not forced at all, it's just there in the awfulness of the Detention Centre waiting to be brought into the open. If this real world dimension is an advantage to the comedy, it's a drawback to the plotting. Almost immediately after each character is introduced, we can take a good guess at their fate, and sure enough, that's what happens. But if a predictable story is the price to pay for lifting the lid on this cruel, calculated (literally - there are targets) process, then that's a price worth paying.