“I am black, I am gay, do you think these people want me in their country?”
For all that it is one of the most provocative of hot-button topics, the workings of the current UK immigration system remains a mystery to many and so there is a fascination to Chris MacDonald’s debut play which if anywhere near the truth, indicates it must be one of the most harrowing places to work. Eye of the Needle shows us the world of an Immigration Detention Centre through the eyes of not-quite-a-newcomer Laurence, a junior caseworker struggling to keep himself detached from the work.
Initially, he’s more interested in funding a nightlife in Dalston’s finest watering holes, regularly rocking up to work with a hangover and barely stifling giggles as he asks gay asylum seekers the ridiculous requirement to provide some sort of proof of their sexuality. An early scene does find the humour here but the laughter is soon cut off as a big case lands on his desk, that of Ugandan gay rights activist Natale, and finally the gravity of his position within the UKBA, and the power he wields over the lives of his caseload, begins to sink in.
It’s a tad schematic in the way that enlightenment slowly dawns on Nic Jackman’s Laurence but MacDonald’s characterisation is strong throughout as he gives us a world full of complex people and conflicting motivations. Solicitor Caroline’s liberal intentions are countered by the recognition of the good publicity she’ll get for helping on this case, Stephen Hudson’s long-suffering Ted is as much a product of as well as a defender of the crumbling and scandalously under-resourced administration.
And even Ony Uhiara’s Natale, fleeing her home because her life is under threat, isn’t clear-cut. She’s claiming asylum as a lesbian but we don’t know how true that is, only that she is a fierce spirit lent great charisma by Uhiara. The bitter sense of resigned humour that permeates here smacks of authenticity – the only way to get through the day in a place like this – but in its exploration of the desperation that drives so many asylum seekers, it’s the bitter sting that lingers rather than the laughter.