Aid Memoir, Pleasance Theatre

A play for three actresses, less than an hour long, with minimal set and costumes. At first sight, this seems like a quick and easy play to stage, but expect it to unsettle you, leaving ripples in your mind. There are plenty of funny moments during the play, but the serious questions it raises will haunt you long after you leave the theatre. The satire is used here very effectively to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and well-meant but often badly planned appeals for donations.

Martine is an aid worker in future United Kingdom torn apart by civil war. Families and friends have found themselves separated by the Humber, food is a luxury, electricity and running water have been reduced to just a few hours per day. Refugee camps have been set up in Butlins-type seaside resorts or funfairs, with overcrowded chalets, disused dodgems and occasional lapses into violence at the (now empty) swimming pool. Chelle, aged just 17, is one of the young people who has found refuge in the camp and become Martine’s right-hand person and protegée. She dreams of escaping from the hopelessness of her life in the UK and going abroad.

When MTV journalist Taz turns up at the camp to prepare a special appeal programme, complete with the requisite celebrity from Kenya, Chelle believes that her big moment has arrived. But Taz’s motivations are not as philanthropic as one might have hoped: there is some personal history between her and Martine, while professionally they are at odds. Taz is trying to sell a certain image of despair in the UK, while Martine is indignant that she is over-simplifying matters. Will history repeat itself or will they be able to see past their differences for a noble cause?

Most playwrights might have stopped here with the questions, but journalist and former aid worker Glenda Cooper goes further. Rather than skewering merely Taz and Martine for letting their personal feelings get the better of them, she makes the entire audience squirm. To what extent are we ourselves responsible for the way humanitarian crises are reported in the media? Who gets to decide which emergency is more important?  To what extent do our reduced attention spans, and our search for photogenic and deserving poverty contribute to our own infantilisation via media? Just how patronising do even the most well-meant efforts to help people sound when they are transposed to Scunthorpe?

I really enjoyed the casting, although occasionally it felt like their movement was hampered by the small space. Remi Fadare played Martine as very set in her ways, even self-righteous, while Sabrina Richmond’s Taz comes across as emotionally fragile. Chelle is played by a revolving cast of young actresses. On the night I went, it was Ellie Kidd, who was initially a bit soft-spoken but then blossomed in the later scenes.

Although it felt like some issues could have been further developed, this short, concentrated format certainly runs no risk of becoming repetitive. Two particular moments stood out for me. The first was Chelle’s realisation that Taz is looking for a certain kind of narrative about ‘traditional culture’, so she fabulates on the spot about fish and chips. Cultural anthropologists have long been anxious about how their study of a certain traditional culture might be changing it forever or conferring false meaning to certain rituals. Here it was in full, hilarious form!

The second moment was the moving scene where Chelle begs Taz to take her out of the country, while the journalist tries to convince her that she doesn’t really mean it, that she wouldn’t be happy far away from home. A powerful indictment of privilege and ‘knowing what is best for them’.

You will have to be quick to see the play: it only runs until 6th Oct at The Pleasance; there will be an additional performance on 6th Nov at City University. Let’s hope that it will get a longer run at another theatre soon.

One response to “Aid Memoir, Pleasance Theatre”

  1. […] One event I did attend this week was at a small community theatre in Islington, The Pleasance, where I saw Aid Memoir by Glenda Cooper – a satire about international aid and TV appeals, making us question our own often patronising attitudes towards humanitarian crises and the ‘deserving’ recipients of aid. A short but really powerful piece of work (which chimed with my personal experience at both the giving and receiving end of the equation). You can read my full review here.  […]


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