Now playing at Battersea’s Theatre 503, Occupied is a dark, humorous drama about immigration, prejudice and identity. Writer Carla Grauls has drawn inspiration from her own experiences from visiting Romania and returning to Britain during the grip of the Eastern European invasion back in 2007.
The play is performed as part of LabFest 2012 at Theatre 503, which is a two-week investigation of the very hottest new full-length plays. The cast have all given their time to the production un-paid, and that in itself shows the dedication they all give to their craft.
Occupied is set in a derelict Victorian public toilet in London, and is built around two Romanians who have fallen on hard times. They abduct an Englishman, and keep him tied up whilst trying to find out about the ‘English life’.
The audience feel the atmosphere straightaway as they walk in to the theatre. The cast are all in their place on stage with an accordion playing a sombre version of Rule Britannia. The stage is a public toilet, with a man sat on the toilet reading a paper, a woman sat on a chair in the middle of the stage playing the accordion, and the third tied up on the floor. You feel like you’re involved in the story almost immediately with the iconic tune setting the mood.
The opening sees two Romanian squatters (Alex and Andrea) berating a tied-up Englishman (Tom Jones, not the singer!) who they’ve kidnapped on a whim. We find out almost immediately why they’re there; to absorb his identity and ‘become English’. Whilst at times sinister, there are a lot of one-liners which has the audience laughing out loud.
Mark Conway stars as Alex, a Romanian traveller who has reached the end of his tether with the way life is in Romania. His energetic performance as the Romanian Alex is so convincing that one wouldn’t know his real accent is actually English. He is a joy to watch and injects plenty of drama, dark humour and passion into his part. His relationship with co-star Andrea (Rosie Hilal) is perfectly balanced, and she uses her charm to make her character interesting, yet vulnerable. Andrea sees Alex as someone who will look after her, and at times has the audience wondering if they’re having a sexual relationship or if its purely friendship. Andrea and Englishman Tom (Luke Waldock) develop a friendship during the story which sees Tom kissing her arm and telling Andres he understands and cares about her. Her vulnerability comes across really well.
There’s also an underlying story, as halfway through the first half an old woman emerges from underneath newspapers in the corner. Her presence alone captures the audience’s imagination straightaway, as Alex becomes so scared and agitated of her that he almost loses his mind at the sight of her and keeps shouting “Get away old woman!” Who is this old woman? Her identity becomes apparent in the second half and will have audience gasp in shock.
The message that comes across from Occupied is the difference between identities, people, and how important it is to understand how different cultures work.
The set-up and the first hour of Occupied is fast-paced and works extremely well. The second half also works well, but our only criticism is how believable the developing relationship between Tom and Andrea actually is. Occupiedprovides an entertaining theatrical experience, with the dark, sinister and comedic humour sure to keep you hooked right until the end. This play is only on for two more nights, and EF urges you to head down to the gorgeous Theatre 503 in Battersea. Don’t miss out.