After their first outing at the Fringe last year with their tongue in cheek show Bloody Foreigners, amateur theatre group of Ukrainians and their friends Molodyi Teatr London are back with their dynamic and clever second offering: Penetrating Europe, or Migrants Have Talent. They use the premise of a Britain’s Got Talent-style talent show both to poke fun at and to highlight the at times absolutely harrowing experiences undocumented migrants have when trying to cross borders and start new lives. The show mostly hinges on the judges, Nigel (the Brexiteer parody) and Nigella (once an undocumented migrant herself who eventually made it in British society), whose votes decide whether the migrant “contestants” get to stay or get deported. If their votes clash, it goes to the audience, who are given red and green cards to hold up when the vote goes to “the Great British Public” at the end of the show.
The talent show device is fitting as a reflection of a society which not only tends to make cruel, snap decisions about migrants’ futures on little to no information, but also only values migrant and refugee lives for what they can contribute to British society rather than valuing them simply as people who deserve rights regardless of perceived “worth”. The “contestants” all enter the stage in market bags in a nod to the more unorthodox storage devices which migrants often travel in. They sing, dance and tell their often not very glamorous stories of confusion, loss, hardship and hope live from a detention centre, only to have most of their experiences voted down by the Brexiteer judge simply because they’re not entertaining – i.e. contributing – enough. It’s a novel way of exploring how Britain deals with undocumented migrants, and it’s effective.
The hour is not all talent show, however, with the more glitzy, brightly-lit proceedings contrasted with two more sombre stories which are told in interspersed segments throughout the show. Two people stand, dimly lit, under a sign post, one under a sign pointing to the UK and another to Ukraine, and they both tell their wildly different stories of crossing borders (an undocumented woman trying to get from Ukraine to the UK next to an obviously privileged man who is crossing between Poland and Ukraine). These segments are a welcome change of pace and a way of bringing the audience back to reality outside of the talent show setting, as well as an important device to bring out two stories in depth while the others get less showtime simply by design.
The show is funny, the actors are accomplished, there is some beautiful singing and dancing and there is plenty of talent behind the writing which pieced together the verbatim interviews which inspire the stories of the migrants in the play. At times a lack of energy made the narrative somewhat clunky but otherwise Molodyi Teatr should be very proud to have realised a show which balances being entertaining with being thought-provoking and, at times, deeply moving. Worth seeing.