Actors will be in trouble if the Bridge Theatre's latest experiment catches on

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM


Bridge Theatre

The Comeback

Noël Coward Theatre

Flight has been hailed as a new form of dramatic presentation — prefab theatre. It’s great to look at. A set of model boxes containing stick figures and colourful landscapes slides past the seated viewer while a voiceover reads the narrative. No thesps are required, which may be a relief to producers and directors but the acting profession will be in trouble if this experiment catches on. The story, adapted from Hinterlandby Caroline Brothers, follows two Afghan teenagers, Kabir and Aryan, who decide to walk to Europe in search of a better life. All they have is $2,000 in cash and a spare pair of trainers each. Along the way, they keep up their spirits by chanting the somewhat roundabout route they plan to take once they’ve left the Asian landmass. ‘Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Paris, London,’ they intone. They’re heading for Britain because they have an uncle here who sends them money and assures them that free school places will be available.

The narrative specialises in sugary platitudes which invite us to admire the boys’ pluck, ambition and intelligence. Kabir, we’re told, ‘has nothing in his pockets but dreams’, while Aryan is presented as a maths genius who ‘finds beauty in numbers the way someone else might find beauty in birdsong’. Unfortunately the lads aren’t too bright. Neither of them has learned to swim even though the journey clearly involves two sea crossings. They nearly drown while paddling in an open boat from Turkey to Greece. Having reached dry land, they’re taken in by a hospitable Greek farmer who sets them to work for months on end but refuses to pay them. The farmer has a colleague who rapes one of the boys. They escape to Italy, encouraged by a second uncle in Rome, and they hand over thousands of euros to a trucker who drives them to France. But Italy and France are inside the Schengen zone with no functioning borders. The Italian trucker fills his vehicle with dozens of confused migrants who pay him a small fortune for this short, unpoliced journey. In all, he makes more than €30,000 in a single night. Some of these people traffickers must be multimillionaires by now.

Two years on and the footsore travellers have reached the Normandy coast where they can see the white cliffs gleaming enticingly from across the Channel. Their uncle in London sends them another wedge of money which they pass to a helpful African criminal from the Calais Jungle. On his advice, they break into a refrigerated lorry whose temperature is held at –18º C. The African tells them, correctly, that these vehicles are never checked. But he doesn’t tell them why. They’re death traps. The story ends in tragedy.

It’s hard to say who is most at fault for this wretched adventure. The greedy traffickers, the ignorant uncles, the lads themselves, or the United Nations, which encourages migrants to make these perilous odysseys. The sad fact is that Britain has little need of youngsters such as Kabir and Aryan. The country that’s crying out for them is Afghanistan. A policy that removes people from hardship at home and transfers them to an easier life in the West will eventually deprive failing states of any kind of future. In the process it feeds the interests of crooks, slave drivers and rapists.

Just before Christmas the Noël Coward Theatre produced a low-budget two-hander, The Comeback. But lockdown has suspended the run. The show is a backstage comedy in which the principal actors (Alex Owen and Ben Ashenden) double up as a rival pair of older comedians, Jimmy and Sid. This device will be familiar to fans of Noises Off but the results here are easier to enjoy. The trouble with Michael Frayn’s classic is that the viewer finds himself thinking: ‘Gosh, this is clever, but is it any good?’ This story works better because it’s unburdened by the impenetrable complexities of Frayn’s huge brain.

The show takes place in the fictional town of Diddington, where a legendary Hollywood director has arrived to scout for undiscovered talent. Both sets of comedians must compete to win his favour and land a movie contract. On paper that looks daft. Why would a Hollywood director want to sign a British duo from the northern comedy circuit? On stage it doesn’t matter. The rivalry makes sense because it engages our sympathy and both actors have a charming, easy manner. They’re veterans of Footlights who also perform as The Pin on Radio 4, so their brotherly friendship feels like the real thing. The script is smart but not intellectual, and it pokes fun at the flimsiness of the set and the cheapness of the costumes. If this lockdown ever ends, The Comeback will do exactly what it says on the tin.

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