Thursday, 3 January 2013

Theatre review: Tu i Teraz

For quite some time immigrant Poles have been a favourite target of the right-wing press so it's perhaps surprising that London's cosmopolitan theatre scene hasn't staged more plays showing their side of the story. Nicola Werenowska's Tu i Teraz (Here and Now) is a very low-key attempt to do so. When Marysia (Ania Sowinski) first came to England with her six-year-old son Kuba it was as an illegal immigrant. Over the years, and following Poland's joining the EU, she became a UK citizen, cut off all ties with her home town, and worked her way out of dead-end jobs into a more comfortable life. When we rejoin her, she and Kuba (Mark Strepan,) now 16, have moved from London to Colchester, where she works in a bank and he's a straight-A student, considering himself completely British and no longer even able to speak any Polish. But their lower-middle class life is shaken up by two faces from the past.

I say shaken up, but Tu i Teraz seems to shy away from the opportunities for drama its story presents, and Sam Potter's understated production doesn't do much to change this impression. Unbeknownst to Kuba, his mother still occasionally meets up with her abusive ex-husband Janusz (George Lasha) for sex, despite promising never to see him again. And when Marysia's sister Anna (Anna Eliasz,) part of a more recent wave of immigration, finds herself without a job, she tracks down her family. Kuba becomes the battleground as Anna, desperate to re-establish a connection with the nephew she cared for for six months when he was a child, introduces him to the Polish culture Marysia has tried to keep from him for the last ten years.

The four-strong cast do well, but are never quite given enough to get their teeth into. Neither Janusz's violent past nor just how genuine his desire to change is are particularly explored, nor do we find out what drove Marysia away from Poland with such urgency. (And if Anna didn't pick up a word of English in however many weeks or months she was working in London, how did one afternoon alone in a Colchester living room leave her able to hold a conversation with Kuba? Did she turn the TV on and pick it up by osmosis, like Madison in Splash?)

I suspect Mark Strepan is someone we'll be seeing a lot more of in the future. As the focal point of much of the story he brings some real emotional truth to Kuba, when he's allowed to do so. But his character really typifies the way Werenowska's writing holds back - it seems odd to centre your story around a hormonal teenager, then make him such a mild-mannered, well-adjusted one.

Tu i Teraz isn't a bad play but it never really comes alight. What energy does build up tends to ebb away during the slow scene changes, which Matthew O'Leary's lighting design at least tries to give some life to. There's worse ways to spend two hours but given those two hours are spent with just four characters, I would have expected to feel like I knew them a bit better at the end.

Tu i Teraz by Nicola Werenowska is booking until the 19th of January at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.

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