Deep breath, dive in.
The Arcola , tucked off the Kingsland Road in Hackney, is probably one of my favourite fringe theatres in London, so it seemed apt to break my recent theatre drought with a trip there. The place has a buzz about it, an energy which I really like, and I spent a nice half hour in the bar before the start, sitting with a drink (a coffee, OK, just a coffee) and my paperback, enjoying being surrounded by happy, chatty people and furtively trying to ascertain if that was Douglas Henshall standing in the corner.
The current production, Fragile, by London based, Croatian born writer Tena Stivicic was on in the smaller studio 2 and there’s something rather illicit and exciting about the way they lead you down a dark side alley, past the bins and down some steps, to gain entrance to the space.
The play is an interesting layered thing, a bit too sub-plot heavy for my liking but saying some genuinely interesting things about being an immigrant in London. The two main characters Mila and Marko, a Croat and a Serb respectively, share a flat together, as well as working shifts in a seedy club owned by a shady, but warm-hearted, Bulgarian. Mila is dating a foreign correspondent Erik, who was out in Balkans during the conflict; both of them are unaware that Erik’s former lover is now in London after being trafficked through Europe as a prostitute.
There’s a lot of potential for stereotype here but Stivicic manages to avoid it, for the most part steering her characters in unexpected directions. Marko has dreams of being a stand-up comedian (something that, coming from a Serbian background myself, made me smile) and Mila wants to make it in musical theatre – dreams, and the way that this fair city of ours can so casually crush them, is a major theme here. Only the naïve and hippyish New Zealand social worker remains a bit one-dimensional (and swapping her wardrobe of dream-catcher earrings and ponchos for more muted black attire is a bit of a heavy-handed indicator of personal growth).
The play becomes a bit convoluted in its incident heavy final scenes, with the various twists and the neat little epilogue feeling more suited to cinema than the stage, but the pacing kept your attention held and I was fascinated by its portrait of London as a city where so many live but so few truly feel it home. This echoes something my mother, who has been in this country for over four decades now, often describes and I feel I understand that sentiment a little better now.