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The Claim review at Shoreditch Town Hall, London – ‘linguistically arresting’

Yusra Warsama, Ncuti Gatwa and Nick Blakeley in The Claim at Shoreditch Town Hall, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Yusra Warsama, Ncuti Gatwa and Nick Blakeley in The Claim at Shoreditch Town Hall, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Asylum seeker Serge (Ncuti Gatwa) greets the audience with an effusive speech about storytelling. He is joined by Nick Blakeley as A, an unnamed interpreter sweating with anxiety and vibrating with misplaced goodwill.

Between them, they bumble through an overlapping conversation establishing Serge’s provenance (he’s from Streatham, but originally from the Congo), and touch on the crucial night in his childhood, when Serge’s father disappeared.

Tim Cowbury’s dense script plays out on a sparse set, with six narrow light boxes illuminating a jaundice-yellow stage and a single seat which Serge is compelled to take. The lights flicker and hum; sometimes they seem to resemble cell bars.

Serge and A talk to each other in French – rendered as swift but syntactically off-key English. Their conversation is associative and punny, scattered across the stage like verbal alphabetti spaghetti. But while Mark Maughan’s production is fun, it’s also slow going.

The action progresses when B (Yusra Warsama) is assigned to Serge’s case. B needs A’s help translating Serge’s claim, which is – we discover through repetitions, misunderstanding and interruptions – that he would like to stay in Britain, having fled Congo and then Uganda, arriving in the UK some two years prior.

The Claim is a linguistically arresting piece of writing. Much of it revolves around the conflation of the words gum, gun and the slang ‘piece’ for gun, a mistranslation that damages Serge’s claim. But though the play is a doubtless accurate portrayal of the frustrating bureaucratic barriers facing asylum seekers, its confusions and repetitions make for exasperating viewing.

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Verdict
The plight of an asylum seeker explored through dazzling, if frustrating, word play
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