Nick Le Mesurier reviews Utopia by Amahra Spence at the Shop Front Theatre, Coventry
Utopia is a place full of love. It is also a place full of anger and pride, but it’s the love that dominates.
Utopia is a café where soup and dumplings are served. It could be any city in Britain. It is run by Yvonne, a powerful Jamaican woman who dispenses wisdom along with her food. It is where Shay, the central character in this intriguing, unusual monologue performed and written by Amahra Spence, goes.
She’s a busker. She’s also faced with the challenge of having to buy her right to remain in this country, even though she’s been here almost all her life. She’s committed no crime – other than parking on a double yellow line and cheeking the traffic warden – but already she’s lost her job because of her ‘status’. She may be a minor saint: she has very little money but she still can find a bit to give to others who have less. She brings a little happiness to people through her character and her songs. But now she has to find some £4000 to pay for the privilege of remaining where she’s grown up, been educated, worked and paid taxes all her life. Tellingly, she reminds us that you probably know someone like her, or know someone who knows someone like her, who is in danger of deportation. This is our country’s policy, one that seeks to reflect the feelings of ‘the people’.
Well, not all the people. Utopia is the first in a new series of plays that are or will be commissioned by Theatre Absolute to play in their unique Shop Front Theatre, which was once a fish and chip shop in Coventry. The series is called Humanistan, and is described as a series of responses to a provocation to resist forces that dehumanise and separate us. Are We Where We Are? asked similar questions in 2017 / 18 through a series of nine individually commissioned pieces. Humanistan is building on that tradition of identification, of recognition and of unity in diversity.
All this would be merely worthy and ‘right on’ if the performances were not great. Amahra Spence sets the bar high. The monologue has proved one of the most exciting forms of theatre in recent years, demanding authors and performers take a fresh approach with limited resources. Amahra plays a number of parts in this story, switching seamlessly between voices in the cafe and a private interior one that is expressed through a series of draft ‘tweets’. The performance is delivered script in hand too, though she barely glances at it, which in other circumstances would be a weakness but here gives authenticity. It isn’t meant to be ‘professional’, though it is. It is meant to be raw, honest, personal.
The emphasis throughout Humanistan is likely to be on the positive, but that doesn’t mean it will shy away from the problems. Far from it. It stems from a belief that the stories we tell ourselves are what make us. We should take care what we say and think because these things have consequences.
I look forward to more of these intriguing, exciting and uplifting stories.