17 Border Crossings; How To Keep an Alien; B-Orders

Matt Trueman reviews: 17 Border Crossings (4 Stars) | How To Keep an Alien (3 Stars) | B-Orders (2 Stars)

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Published 12 Aug 2015

If there’s one thing to take from 17 Border Crossings, it’s that the way a nation mans its borders reveals much about the country you’ll find on the other side. A reminder, quickly, that our home secretary Philip Hammond warned of “marauding” migrants on Monday. David Cameron spoke of “a swarm". Good-o.

Thaddeus Phillips’ solo show introduces us to the passport controllers of the world: from humourless Americans in sterile interrogation rooms to slovenly Serbs on the take. In Italy, they’re friendly (“Americano? Alpacino? Roberdeniro?”); in Jordan, laid-back to inept. Columbians get handy with cocaine; the French, well, they like to frisk.

Over 90 minutes, Phillips puts a girdle round the earth. One minute he’s riding a train into Bosnia, sharing a carriage with a smuggler and his cargo, the next he’s roaring over the Sahara in a Boeing 747. He bikes us into Brazil, beating stray dogs away with a hired stick, takes a chair lift into Austria and sneaks into Cuba on a toy train passport stamp.

Each short story, some just a minute or two long, is crafted with lightness and wit. Imagine a bucket of KFC being smuggled, by tunnel, beneath the Kerem Shalom crossing from Egypt into Gaza, or a Bosnian town engaged in a sound war: minarets wailing adhan on one side, churches banging bells on the other. The best channel the eloquent precision of Italo Calvino. It’s a brilliant travelogue: pacey, funny and beguiling.

He’s a born raconteur, Phillips, capable, I’d guess, of making almost any material sing. These, however, are exquisite miniatures, full of life and character, and staged with an effortless ‘empty space’ theatricality. At one point, he recreates a Balinese coffee high merely by shaking a torch in front of his face, casting jittery, far-out shadows on the back wall. Planes, trains and automobiles materialise out of a table, a chair and a homemade lighting rig made of domestic lights. Nations are conveyed with a keen sense of simple specificity: sickly communist greens, sleazy red lights and perky Europop. He’s chased around Europe by Ace of Base.

It all adds up—though it’s such a joy to sit through that it wouldn’t matter if it didn't—to a thoughtful enquiry. He prods at the arbitrary oddity of borders—new countries drawn up over drinks—and grumbles at the petty authoritarianism and bureaucracy with which they’re policed. A potted history of the passport—invented, did you know, by Henry V—leads to the new microchip tracker. Phillips popped his in the microwave; traceable no more.

Some of us, of course, are freer to move than others: José Matada, frozen stiff on a suburban street underneath the Heathrow flight path, where he’d fallen from the landing gear of a BA flight from Angola, while Phillips (mostly) breezes through border control.

Back to that “marauding” “swarm.” Sonya Kelly is an Irish actor and comedian. She looks a bit like Sarah Millican and Harry Hill melted together, and, while rehearsing a Russian play in posh English accents, she fell in love with Kate, an Australian stage manager on a temporary work visa. To make it permanent, you have to be earning over €60,000 (£42,500) a year, with all the tax that entails. At the Fringe, you probably don’t need telling that stage managers—Australian or otherwise—don’t really do that.

How To Keep an Alien is a cute, cuddly account of butting up against the Irish immigration system. Mostly, though, it’s a love story: a Richard Curtis rom-com with added paperwork. Proving their relationship means compiling a dossier of receipts and testimonials, the springboard for a story or two told with the aid of Kelly’s friend Justin.

Kelly has a cracking turn of phrase and puppyish demeanour that’s just oh-so endearing, but I found myself craving a bit more mettle. Given the “global immigration crisis", it all starts to seem a bit lightweight. A strand about Kate’s Irish ancestors—letters sent from the ship to Australia—adds some oomph, musing as it does on commitment, but it’s hard to shake the nagging thought of #firstworldproblems.

Some borders are stricter than others. Two Palestinian circus performers express the precariousness of life in Gaza physically in B-Orders. Ashtar Muallem and Fadi Zmorrod balance themselves on building blocks, stacking small towers, then holding handstands on top: shaking bodies on wobbly foundations.

There’s a huge gulf between the stark Chinese pole and the soft aerial silks on which they perform: one luxurious, the other hard and cold. Zmorrod plummets down the pole in an alarming freefall. Muallem unfurls down the silks. A harsh, hammering soundtrack echoes the barked orders of border guards.

What Muallem and Zmorrod don’t manage is a physical language of their own, a way of pushing stock circus acts into specific metaphors. In another context, another show, every routine could mean something else entirely. The space doesn’t help: a pop-up stadium that drains the piece of atmosphere and robs the performers of personality. Nothing here has the poetry or the precision of that KFC bucket, whizzing its way into Gaza underground.