Rachel De-lahay’s new play may only be 70 minutes long, but it covers more political and emotional ground with its short, painful punch than could be said of many a longer offering.
The young writer’s return to the Royal Court theatre, following her award-winning debut The Westbridge, tackles the weighty subject of immigration, revealing absurd laws and a disgusting lack of human rights awarded to people in the uncomfortably local vicinity of zone six.
Interweaving two paralleled stories, the pacey drama questions what it means to call a place home. Peter Bankolé is a Nigerian forced to sell everything he owns to secure false papers to return home to his family in England after a minor misdemeanour led to deportation, while 18-year-old Bashir’s (Fiston Barek) home is ripped from under his feet when one petty mistake places him in an immigration removal centre and in the middle of a series of ridiculous legal loopholes with no happy endings.
Both stories are equally painful to witness, but the story of Bashir seems the most senseless. With the government possessing no rights to ask him to leave but bizarrely the right to detain him indefinitely in a depressing institution, he is left in a soulless state of limbo, the only route out of it to volunteer to fly to a country he has no memories of, no ties to, no family. It’s almost too awful to believe but a quick Google search will support De-lahay’s shocking propositions.
Simon Godwin’s production moves swiftly along, with the two protagonists passing one another like ghosts as the action flips from one side of the globe to the other; two plain chairs the only props on Paul Wills’ angular, LED lit set. Running through their stories are the tales of the people involved in their distressing cases; for Bashir, charity worker Anka (Anamaria Marinca) and fellow Feltham Young Offender Kola (Calvin Demba), who proves the common link in the story when his HM Immigration Officer mother Lisa (Claire Lams) is the one to finally dash Bankolé’s Olunfemi’s hopes.
De-lahay’s gripping story finds strong support in the small cast, with Bankolé and Lams especially affecting in their roles as parents in entirely different circumstances but both possessing the same quietly desperate need to rebuild a sense of home. It is Barek and Demba who are undoubtedly the stars of the show, however, blessed with De-lahay’s most witty lines and successfully pulling off naturalistic performances of characters who use the term YOLO in normal conversation and wear their jogging bottoms halfway down their bums.
It is this teenage normality – the tense brows that come with adolescent annoyance and boredom of not quite being a fully functioning adult at 18 – where Routes truly packs its punch. Through Bashir’s naivety and, in turn, Barek’s heartbreaking performance, we are reminded he’s still very much a child. A child whose country on his passport represents not home but the prospect of being utterly abandoned.