Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Voila Festival Day 1 – Expat Underground (UK/ITA)

My day #1 (the festival's day #7) of this whirlwind schedule saw me out in the far east of London, visiting the newly-minted Applecart Arts for the first time.

The theatre has an interesting recent history. This year, the former Stratford community centre transformed from its roots as a Methodist Church, opening with a new lease and an arts-focused agenda. It’s not an uncommon story for London – a former church turned community centre, no longer profitable due to its surge of Olympics money coming to an end, then goes to tender to try and find a new buyer. Inevitably, property developers swoop, and the church must choose between profit and community.

This time, they chose the latter. Applecart theatre is the result – a hybrid of community centre and theatre, housing many of the former non-profit activities and housing a loosely curated program of festivals, events, and one-off shows.

Voila!, I’m reliably told, is its first major event hosting – and it’s a great way to plant seeds, both for the  future of UK-European collaboration. The venue has seen several performances as part of the festival, including a British collaboration about Goethe, and last night, two monologues from women about immigrating to the UK – Expat Underground (UK/ITA) and Rootlost (POL/UK). I’ll focus on the former, although Rootlost, professionally performed by nomadic world citizen Magdelana Krohn, contains some interesting crossovers with its preceding show.

Unless you happen to be not human, it’s hard not to love Expat Underground. Developed in the wake of the UK’s referendum on European Union membership, the show is an autobiographical retelling of performer Cecilia Gragnani’s 9-year emigration to London. Beginning with naivety, the show traipses through the struggles and disappointment of menial jobs, to her romantic encounter with a British man and feeling like a foreigner in her own country. All the time, London speaks to her – literally, in golden BBC voiceover by Steve Wickenden – explaining to her the hidden rules and regulations of being a Londoner.

Image Credit: unknown
It’s admittedly a somewhat cliché premise, that could be the beginning of any number of shows on the subject. But Gragnani’s charismatic personality, expert management, and openness as a performer, as well as some great writing by herself and compatriot Jvan Sica, more than overcome any lack in originality in the premise. The dramaturgy and direction from Katharina Reinthaller arrange her personal account into chapters that weave together beautifully – from the opening interrogation by a imaginary Border Agency officer (“but what if we got married? What do you mean, it’s too late?”) through to Cecilia’s personal experiences, to the finale which contextualises the struggle within a political situation shared by countless others currently in the UK.