The Welcoming Party is a “were you there?” piece of theatre. Like Theatre-Rites’ first show 21 years ago, the ground-breaking site-specific production Houseworks, people will be talking about this phenomenal production for years to come, and a lucky few will be able to say they experienced it. But, “theatre criticism is… a large part of a show’s afterlife”, so gathered here are my thoughts interwoven with other writers’, which I hope could amount to something of an afterparty (a welcoming afterparty…)
According to Matt Trueman in What’s On Stage, The Welcoming Party is “vital – in every sense of the word”. Created by Theatre-Rites and Z-arts, and commissioned by Manchester international festival, it is described by Kids in Museums Commisioning Editor Rhonda Carrier as “both thought-provoking and moving”, and by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian as “remarkable”. For Aniqah Choudhri in Exeunt The Welcoming Party is “one of the most exciting pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.”
Form and content are perfectly aligned in this site-specific, promenade piece about migration and the refugee experience. The Welcoming Party takes us on a journey, moving through the 1830 Warehouse which is part of Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, so that we are not only watching someone else’s experience, but walking in their shoes. “We’ve all read articles describing the bureaucratic hurdles facing asylum seekers,” writes Lyn Gardner, “but Theatre-Rites’ remarkable immersive show for the over-eights makes us feel it”. Choudhri can’t “imagine another piece of theatre – or art – that could give us a better understanding of what it’s like to be a refugee.”
We are a welcoming party, expectantly crowded around large double doors waiting to greet newly arrived refugees who, held up by paperwork (an ongoing theme), never appear. But a sound from the floor above suggests someone has had more success through “unofficial channels”. Hiding in a metal container, Mohamed may have made it to Manchester, but that isn’t the end of his journey; we follow as he works his way through a system that, as Roger Foss in The Stage rightly notes, makes “the UK come across as so mean-spirited that you wonder why anyone fleeing danger would risk heading for these shores.”
Our journey through the building is awkward, and intentionally so, as we are shunted about, hurried along and cordoned off: it’s “a brilliant encapsulation of an arbitrary and authoritarian system” (Trueman). The site of a railway track briefly glimpsed through those first doors is the initial proof that the 1830 Warehouse is “an atmospheric choice of location, but also an apt one”, as noted by Georgina Wells in her British Theatre Guide review. It reminds us both of desperate attempts to reach England via the Channel Tunnel, and the structure’s original use: we’re in the world’s first railway warehouse, and “the tracks still run to the door to receive cargo – in this case, it’s the human kind” (Gardner). Trueman continues: it is “a place where cargo was stored, assessed and unloaded. Buckmaster’s point is that migrants are treated much the same. The floors and beams are two types of timber: African Oak from Sierra Leone and Greenheart, perhaps from Guyana. The space is rich with resonance.”
As Mohamed is passed through the system, increasingly ridiculous bureaucracy is at first humorous and then horrifying: “there are times…when it feels as if we have fallen into a cross between a Kafkaesque nightmare and Nineteen Eighty-Four” (Gardner). One by one the cast are detained by a faceless, clipped “Big Brother voice” (Carrier) until everyone’s papers are demanded and the whole audience is forced to fill in immigration forms by a system that sets applicants up to fail – time limits, cramped conditions, confusing signage, unending queues, unclear instructions, and unmanned desks make it impossible to complete the documents (and, as one girl near me points out, “We weren’t told to bring our passports!”) Circumstances are not taken into account, nor individuals recognised (fitting for a country in which our previous Prime Minister referred to migrants as “a swarm”). “You’re not listening to their stories!” performer Michal Keyamo desperately cries as the disembodied voice ignores her friends’ explanations and, with a wilfully simplistic interpretation of their words, throws a fresh round of paperwork into their path.
The authorities might not listen to personal narratives, but The Welcoming Party makes sure that we do. The cast – Michal Keyamo, Mohamed Sarrar, Amed Hashimi, Emmanuela Yogolelo, Carl Harrison, Mohsen Nouri, and Clémentine Telesfort – includes migrants and refugees. “The stories told are their own stories,” director Sue Buckmaster told Aniqah Choudhri. More critical reviewers have targeted what they perceive to be a preachy and one-dimensional approach to immigration: The Welcoming Party “simplified the message too much,” writes Lucy Tomlinson in Confidentials. “The overwhelming messages I got were that refugees are our good friends and that we all just had to be nice to one another and anyone who wasn’t was a big meanie. Much as I’d like this to be true, there is more to it than that and I’m sure the target age range of 8+ could have taken a little more complexity.” Political correctness, Foss suggests, prevents nuance: “As a plea to be welcoming to newcomers, all the correct humanitarian boxes are heavily ticked, but this leaves no room to interrogate an over-arching didactic narrative that says we need to be told to put that welcome on the mat.” But despite these claims of idealism, both Tomlinson and Foss commend the show’s authenticity: “you can’t get more genuine than a refugee simply telling it like it was,” writes Foss; “Almost every member of the cast was a refugee or displaced person,” writes Tomlinson. “This gave it a depth and authenticity that prevented it just being a feel-good leftie fantasy”.
The Welcoming Party doesn’t offer a received or acceptable version of the refugee crisis, but conveys a richer, more vivid alternative to alarmist headlines and viral images. “[I]f The Welcoming Party starts with stock imagery of immigration, the sights that even kids pick up from the news, it peels back to a more complex reality” (Trueman). In one scene “an old pulley system is put to spellbinding theatrical use” (Carrier): Mohamed sits in “an unstable boat” (Gardner) which is gradually packed tight with bright orange life-jackets. “The image of the raft is one that many of us, including the children in the audience, will have seen many times. This familiarity seemed deliberate,” writes Choudhri. But the show actually goes one step further, by taking these familiar images and shifting our view. Rather than gazing out to sea from the shore, we are sat in the depths of the ocean, looking up at Mohamed’s overcrowded vessel as it shakily travels overhead. We can’t dispassionately watch from a distance as someone falls overboard – we are face to face with the puppet at it struggles in the cellophane waves.
When Mohamed, who loves Sudan but is forced to leave, says goodbye to his mother, her puppet appears like a ghost from his suitcase, literally crumpling into herself as soon as he is gone. The Welcoming Party combines puppetry with promenade, music and movement, following the Theatre-Rites tradition of casting performers with a variety of talents and specialisms, to create a show that utilises different artforms. With The Welcome Party, this approach – more than ever – feels like a committed attempt to ensure that something in the show connects with each member of the audience. “Possibly the most striking thing about this production is the myriad visually stunning ways that it hammers home its message,” Wells notes. Gardner looks not only to the cast for this effect, but to the wider creative team: “Frank Moon’s sound composition creates an unsettling atmosphere and Jamaal Burkmar’s choreography expresses the agony of uncertainty and waiting. Simon Daw’s design, with its constant images of dehumanising cages, makes the most of the venue.”
The success of Theatre-Rites’ ambitious production is a victory for everyone making and programming work for young people. There’s a sense of amazement from those less familiar with children’s theatre – The Welcoming Party’s “ideas are surprisingly weighty”, according to Choudhri (though “it blew away any misconceptions”), and yet I’ve reviewed six productions about the refugee experience (with two aimed at under-6s) in the past 7 months. Lyn Gardner, long-time champion of work for young audiences and well-acquainted with Theatre-Rites’ work, anticipated nothing less than high-quality theatre that transcends age distinctions: “This is all pretty grown-up stuff, and is done with the rackety swagger and invention that we’ve come to expect from Theatre-Rites, a company making shows for children that is right at the forefront of contemporary British theatre practice.”
But as the company marks a milestone birthday, their latest game-changing site-specific piece suggests that at 21, Theatre-Rites hasn’t grown up but come full circle. Lyn Gardner described their very first production, Houseworks, as “legendary… a show that would certainly make my list of desert island theatrical experiences.” For me, the same could be said of The Welcoming Party.
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