Why can’t all interactive, site-specific theatre be like The Welcoming Party? Theatre-Rites’ first show for Manchester International Festival is beautiful, clever, creative, chilling and thought-provoking theatre. Aimed at family audiences but with absolutely no sugar coating of the subject matter: what it means to be a refugee.
It takes place in the historic 1830s Warehouse, part of the Museum of Science and Industry. The audience are led a meandering dance through the vast brick and timber building—long transitions between scenes / spaces does mean that the spell cast by the performance is occasionally broken, but the magic is soon recaptured. It’s an atmospheric choice of location, but also an apt one—the building’s origin as a warehouse for goods imported by railway echoes the plight of refugees and their treatment as cargo.
The piece begins light-heartedly with a welcome party that falls flat when no guests show up, but things soon take a serious turn once refugee Mohamed arrives. Along with the other characters, we hear Mohamed’s story of fleeing from Sudan and follow him through the immigration system.
In their efforts to help him, the other characters are soon under scrutiny, having to show their papers and be processed. Eventually, the entire audience is herded through a mock asylum seeking procedure, complete with disorientating signage, blaring alarms and a cryptic form to complete.
The climax of the piece is an extended section of choreographed movement using large metal cages on wheels. The characters dance between the warehouse beams, breaking free from the cages to embrace each other only to be shut in again. Sections of fluid, dynamic movement are sprinkled throughout The Welcoming Party, giving sombre scenes a shot of energy.
Possibly the most striking thing about this production is the myriad visually stunning ways that it hammers home its message. Lifelike puppets spring from suitcases and are animated by the cast to bring the refugees’ memories to life. 3D collages of maps and photographs pop up from box files to aid Ahmed in the telling of his story. Mohamed’s escape across the Sahara is depicted with a tiny model truck, moving across the crinkled landscape of a brown cloth thrown over some of the cast.
Music plays a key part too—when Michal thinks back to her early childhood in Nigeria, the cast create a soundtrack with an assortment of percussion. The final scene sees the cast break into joyful song and dance, encouraging the audience to join in their rhythmic clapping.
For all its creative use of props and beautiful location, however, this piece has a serious motivation at its heart. Before the audience leave, they are invited to write messages on postcards, which will eventually get sent out to refugee children in the UK. Trying to distil thoughts and feelings evoked in the last 90 minutes into words that will be read by someone who has actually lived through the events of the play is incredibly difficult.
But it’s hard to imagine another piece of theatre—or art—that could give us a better understanding of what it’s like to be a refugee. The messages on display express hope, love and welcome. There isn’t a joke one among them, and that alone conveys just how powerful The Welcoming Party is.