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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Fast Labour
Hampstead Theatre      Summer 2008

Steve Waters' play, visiting from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a serious drama on a serious subject.

If it ultimately has little new to tell us about the subject, giving human faces to what are otherwise statistics and occasional news stories may be enough of an accomplishment to make the play work for you.

His focus is on illegal migrant workers from the former Soviet Union, smuggled into Britain to work at the menial and dangerous jobs British workers don't want.

They work inhumanly long hours, live in substandard housing, are cheated by their employers and traffickers, and are as likely as not to be reported to Immigration rather than being paid once their job is done.

Somehow one unusually ambitious immigrant manages to rise from the bottom of the heap, acquire a British girlfriend, start his own worker-importing business, and become as rich and crooked as those who had exploited him until a rather abrupt and arbitrary ending reverses his fortunes.

Two things keep the play from real success. First, we are told more than we are shown. Since the action centres on our hero's rise, we don't actually see much of his deprivation, and the worst things all happen offstage, only mentioned glancingly.

Neither author Waters, director Ian Brown nor actor Craig Kelly can really let us see what it is about this particular worker that makes him stand out and rise so quickly, just as actress Kirsty Stuart can't make clear why a Scottish businesswoman chooses this guy to take to her bed and later work for.

The play's ending depends not only on an offstage deus ex machina but on abrupt and unexplained personality changes by almost everyone onstage, adding to the sense that the characters are being manipulated to serve the plot rather than driving it.

And the second problem is that the play's attitude toward its subject and characters is muddied. We are repeatedly told that the migrant workers are exploited, but just as frequently assured that, even after being cheated, they are economically better off than they were at home.

We watch our hero become as bad as or worse than the British trafficker who is the play's villain, but are meant to retain sympathy for him. Does the play bemoan the status of illegal migrants or celebrate the opportunities it affords those at the bottom?

To its credit, the play holds your attention throughout. It just doesn't deliver enough in the way of insight and human drama.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Fast Labour - Hampstead Theatre 2008

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