Vault Festival: Border Control


Cavern at The Vaults, Leake Street Tunnels, Waterloo.


10-13 Mar.


Written by Michelle Sewell, directed by Olivia Furber. Produced by Hack Theatre and performed by Christopher Sherwood, Annice Boparai, and James El-Sharawy.


“A sharp and quick-witted political drama that cuts through the heart of our immigration system to examine what it means for modern relationships”.

Setting up Border Control in the Cavern. Courtesy Hack Theatre.
Setting up Border Control in the Cavern. Courtesy Hack Theatre.


Michelle Sewell’s short play about immigration controls in the UK is as relevant today as it was when written five years ago, and in this Vault Festival run each performance is followed by a short panel discussion.

Border Control is structured in the same way as a UK visa application, so we can follow the suppositions, the intrusive social media examination, and opportunities to deny applications and tear families apart.

Three assessors – played by James El-Sharawy, Annice Boparai, and Christopher Sherwood – are considering the case of Yasmine Abdullah Frost, a Morrocan national who has been in the UK for some years on a student visa, and who has recently married the Englishman she met at the University of East Anglia.

Nothing from her life escapes scrutiny and suspicion, from whether her relationship is genuine to the number of likes on a Facebook post. Throughout we see images from the life of this young couple, images that are carefully scrutinised to see if they are staged.

Eventually her fate is sealed by a piece of information not covered by a tick box but declared in an appendix: a piece of information which would be irrelevant if she was a Moroccan man married to an English national.

The three actors present their characters as largely dispassionate, and although it is telling that only the white man (Sherwood) talks about “allowing foreigners in”, the other two are clearly from immigrant backgrounds and seem to be pulling up the ladder after them on very shaky grounds.

Still from Border Control trailer. Courtesy Hack Theatre.
Still from Border Control trailer. Courtesy Hack Theatre.

Director Olivia Furber joins the panel which follows, chaired by 1970s American immigrant, broadcaster (and Sherwood’s husband) Paul Gambaccini, with Paige Ballmi from Reunite Families UK, Labour councillor Aydin Dikerdem, playwright Michelle Sewell, and Nazek Ramadan (director of Migrant Voice).

The thought-provoking conversation touched on issues from far-right European rallies to income thresholds, from “the right kind of immigrant” (Sewell is Australian, Furber has a Palestinian partner) to the inherent sexism of the immigration process.

Gambaccini’s introduction recalls the ease in which he was allowed entry into the UK in 1978, long before times changed and a combination of media hysteria and political point-scoring made it impossible for many to settle on a permanent basis.

After an audience comment from a doctor who migrated from Hungary into the UK, who talked about the limbo asylum seekers find themselves in, “unable to work, dependent on charity”, the question of “where do we go next” is posed.

We can, and should, do better. We can, and should, talk about this. We can, and should, look beyond shrieking tabloid headlines and the kind of casual racism which has led to both Brexit and the fall of the “red wall” of parliamentary seats to a party committed to “keeping immigrants out”.

Judgement: Wow, Meow, or Furred Brow?

I’m giving a Meow of solidarity to Border Control. Its short running time does not allow for much development of a dramatic arc, but its structure and the way it is performed gets the point across.

I certainly came away with questions around the shift by government to this insular form of xenophobia, calculated to cause catastrophe to families. During the panel discussion, both Windrush and the Nazi genocide were briefly mentioned, and Dikerdem posited that this country was broadly racist and prejudiced.

Sewell’s play seems crucial viewing in our current climate, where even a world pandemic can be dismissed as “foreign”.

LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see Border Control.